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McFeely: NDSU to FBS talk inches forward, with the emphasis on inches

National publication reports Mountain West Conference discusses Bison as a possible addition, but athletic director Matt Larsen says 'a lot of schools are being mentioned'

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North Dakota State head coach Matt Entz holds the title trophy after the win over James Madison in the NCAA FCS championship game at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, on Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020. David Samson / The Forum

FARGO — A Football Bowl Subdivision league is talking about the possibility of adding North Dakota State.

Doesn't mean it's going to extend an invitation. Doesn't mean NDSU would accept if an invitation was offered. Doesn't mean anything, other than somebody in a meeting said the words "North Dakota State."

But this is news. And it might be the start of something much bigger.
Or it might not be. It might be nothing at all.

Such is the world of college football conference realignment.

College football writer Chris Vannini of The Athletic, a heavyweight national online publication, reported Thursday that Mountain West Conference athletic directors met in Texas this week to discuss how conference realignment is affecting their FBS league and to put together contingency plans in case the MWC loses teams.

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The discussions included "the value of staying together, potential conference additions or even staying at 10 football-playing schools should two leave," Vannini reported.

"Some people in the MWC have pointed to North Texas, Rice and UTSA (Texas-San Antonio) as potential additions if the conference wants to reach into Texas, while also pointing to North Dakota State if on-field football success is more important. Unlike the AAC, there are not many options within the current footprint out west," Vannini reported.

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A map of the Mountain West Conference's football programs. MWC graphic

For the first time, NDSU's name was dropped in a national story about conference realignment.

The idea of NDSU moving to FBS inched forward, that's all. But, hey, that's better than nothing.

When contacted about the report, NDSU athletic director Matt Larsen said, "No comment, other than to say a lot of schools around the country are being mentioned."

That much is true. Reports have Mountain West schools Colorado State and Air Force leaving soon for the American Athletic Conference. Others have the Big 12 Conference raiding the MWC for San Diego State, Boise State and the AAC for Memphis. How will the MWC respond? How will the AAC respond? How about the other Group of Five leagues like the Sun Belt and Conference USA?

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It's an expensive game of musical football programs, driven by money and television markets.

It appears, as I predicted in July as the earthquake first rumbled when Texas and Oklahoma bolted the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference, the aftershocks will reach Fargo. When I asked, Larsen said he and NDSU hadn't heard from an FBS conference nor had the school contacted any FBS leagues.

But the Bison are on the radar. That's important.

If a call from the Mountain West does come, I'm confident NDSU will take it and do its due diligence. It will not reject an inquiry or invitation out of hand. Nor will it accept it immediately.

(Listen to TV voice of the Bison Dom Izzo and Forum columnist Mike McFeely discuss the possibility of NDSU moving to the Mountain West.)

As I wrote in December when I tried to get the NDSU-to-FBS train rolling, a move to the Mountain West would almost certainly have to be for the football program only. The Bison's other teams, from men's basketball to baseball to softball and volleyball, would have to remain in the Summit League for financial reasons. With schools in places (for now) like San Diego, Las Vegas, Reno, Fresno, San Jose, Albuquerque and other far-flung locales, flying the soccer team to San Jose for a midweek match would cost too much money to be realistic for NDSU.

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The football-only angle remains a daunting hurdle.

However, if the MWC decides to add teams and it figures NDSU's football "brand" is hefty enough that it adds value, then the league might go for it. Bison football, even though it's at the lower FCS level, carries more heft in terms of recognition and success than North Texas, Rice and Texas-San Antonio combined. When's the last time those schools had three straight quarterbacks drafted into the NFL, including two in the top three picks? Yeah, never.

But the league could decide having schools in Texas is more important than a football brand from a small school in North Dakota. And with basketball being a major part of the MWC resume, it might figure an FCS brand isn't worth a football-only invite.

Something else to think about is NDSU's presidential situation. With athletic booster Dean Bresciani a lame duck after essentially being fired by the State Board of Higher Education, how does that figure into a potential move to FBS? Conference moves are made at the presidential level and with Bresciani on the way out, does he have the power to push the Bison to the Mountain West if that's what's deemed the best move?

And if a potential move was going to occur after Bresciani's successor was hired, what does the successor think of moving to FBS? Looking at the search committee tasked with finding NDSU's next leader, there appears to be exactly one person on it who is even remotely interested in athletics — former Gate City Bank president and CEO Steve Swiontek. There is no athletic representative on the search committee as there has been in the past.

So don't book your flights to Las Vegas for a Bison-UNLV game quite yet.

The Mountain West talking about NDSU doesn't mean an invitation is in the mail. Nor does it mean NDSU would accept the invitation.

But the prospect of NDSU moving to FBS did move forward an inch or two, and that's farther along than it was last week.

Related Topics: THE MCFEELY MESS
Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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