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McFeely blog: With 'down' Bison team winning another title and James Madison bolting, FCS increasingly barren

For a team that was allegedly vulnerable and actually did have a few legitimate question marks entering the season — quarterback, offensive line, cornerbacks — by the end of the season NDSU made it look like 2012 or 2017 again. So who's left to challenge NDSU?

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North Dakota State fans celebrate the win over Montana State in the FCS title game at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, on Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022.
David Samson/ The Forum

FARGO — The spring Football Championship Subdivision season proved nothing more than a mirage to 122 other programs hoping North Dakota State's dominance was finally ending. The Bison's roster was cratered with NFL defections, opt-outs and transfers the team was largely unable to replace between fall 2020 and spring 2021 since it was the same academic year. Eventually, injuries depleted the Bison further and they "only" advanced to the playoff quarterfinals after winning eight national titles in the previous nine years.

Perhaps willfully ignoring the reasons why NDSU looked mortal in the spring, the rest of FCS and the media that cover it appeared gleeful the Bison had taken a step back to the pack. Without a Trey Lance or Carson Wentz or Easton Stick on the roster, maybe NDSU was just another really good FCS team. Maybe the dynasty was over.

The hope was understandable. Everybody who cheers for or covers an FCS team other than NDSU is exhausted with the Bison.

Saturday must've been sobering for them.

NDSU crushed Montana State 38-10 in the national championship game in Frisco, Texas. The Bison used its usual combination of a dominant offensive line, suffocating defense, superior speed and demoralizing depth to bury the Bobcats. Yes, Montana State lost starting quarterback Tommy Mellott on its first series, but that didn't make a difference in the outcome.

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The Bobcats couldn't stop the Bison. After NDSU took a 35-0 lead on the first series of the second half, the Bison let off the gas and closed the playbook.

For a team that was allegedly vulnerable and actually did have a few legitimate question marks entering the season — quarterback, offensive line, cornerbacks — by the end it looked like 2012 or 2017 again.

In four playoff games, NDSU averaged 305 yards rushing per game while allowing four touchdowns total and an average of 8.5 points per game.

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North Dakota State cheerleaders celebrate the win over Montana State during the FCS title game at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, on Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022.
David Samson/ The Forum

If this was a "down" NDSU team, what does a good one look like?

As long as the Bison remain in FCS — and there is no indication a move to the Football Bowl Subdivision is possible in the near future — this is the reality. Barring a (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic, there are only a few programs remaining in FCS that will challenge NDSU.

James Madison is gone to FBS, removing one team that since 2016 was the second best in FCS and could physically match the Bison. The Dukes will join the Sun Belt Conference.

Sam Houston is gone, too, a lesser challenger to NDSU's dominance (aside from a quarterfinal playoff victory over the depleted Bison in the spring) but a top five program the last decade.

Jacksonville State, a regular postseason qualifier but not an elite FCS program, is headed to Conference USA with Sam Houston.

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That leaves exactly three programs that can think of contesting NDSU's superiority — and one of them is Montana State, which just got stomped into the Toyota Stadium turf.

But the Bobcats do have the facilities, tradition, funding and support to get better. They have a ways to go, but it's not impossible to see them building a stronger program.

The others are Montana State's Big Sky Conference rival Montana and the Bison's Missouri Valley Football Conference rival South Dakota State.

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North Dakota State's Costner Ching, Cody Mauch and Cordell Volson celebrate the win over Montana State after the FCS title game at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, on Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022.
David Samson/ The Forum

With James Madison gone, the Jackrabbits are now the second-best program in FCS. They're the only team to beat NDSU more than once since 2011 (all in the regular season).

Montana, like the Bobcats, has the want-to and infrastructure to get better.

Other than that, the landscape is barren.

James Madison's exit leaves the Colonial Athletic Association void of teams able to make deep playoff runs. Conferences like the Southern, Big South, Southland, Western Athletic, Pioneer, Northeast, Patriot and Atlantic Sun appear incapable of producing teams that could physically hold up to the Bison.

Eastern Washington is a top FCS program, but consistently struggles defensively and faces never-ending financial difficulties. The rest of the Big Sky can't compete with the top teams.

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The MVFC is the best, most physical league overall but in the last five seasons the Bison have lost exactly two conference games outside of the COVID-crushed 2021 spring season — SDSU beat them in 2017 and 2021.

Missouri State and Southern Illinois are improved, but didn't have an impact in the playoffs this season. Same with South Dakota. Northern Iowa is the perpetual tease. Illinois State is regressing. Outside of the anomaly of the spring season, North Dakota is a borderline playoff team or worse. Indiana State, Western Illinois and Youngstown State are bottom feeders.

And the Valley's likely big addition in 2023? Murray State of Kentucky, an Ohio Valley program that will be the worst in the league when it enters.

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North Dakota State's Destin Talbert and Braylon Henderson hold the trophy after the FCS title game at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, on Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022.
David Samson/ The Forum

The gap between the top handful of teams in FCS and the rest is widening, not narrowing. And under construction on the NDSU campus in north Fargo is a $50 million indoor practice facility that will only make it wider.

The answer for NDSU, of course, is a move to FBS, but that's simply not in the cards for the foreseeable future. The near future appears to be more of the same, with potential challengers to the throne limited to even fewer schools than the past 10-12 years.

James Madison. Sam Houston. Georgia Southern. Appalachian State. Coastal Carolina. Old Dominion. Liberty. All schools that have made the jump from FCS to FBS in the last decade. Most were top-tier playoff contenders.

What's left? From NDSU's perspective more trips to Frisco and more national championships, barring an unforeseen collapse. Never say never, one supposes.

There will be a lot of playoff matchups with SDSU, Montana and Montana State. Nothing fresh, nothing new. The national perspective that was so entertaining in the Bison's early days of FCS is gone. The division's power is going to be heavily regionalized in the MVFC and Big Sky.

FCS is going to exist, even grow with southern NCAA Division II teams moving up. But what is that existence going to look like? A lot of green and yellow storming a soccer field in north Texas, if Saturday's performance by a "down" Bison team is any indication.

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