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NDSU switches non-conference philosophy to top 25 FCS programs

FARGO-There was a time when the formula for scheduling football games for North Dakota State comprised mainly of paying a couple of marginal Division I FCS opponents a guarantee to come to Fargo and finding an FBS opponent to pay NDSU a guarantee...

Chris Klieman's North Dakota State football team hosts Eastern Washington Saturday, Sept. 10, and will play at Eastern Washington next season. "I think they're great ... having great competition on the games you play in the FCS," Klieman said. David Samson / The Forum
Chris Klieman's North Dakota State football team hosts Eastern Washington Saturday, Sept. 10, and will play at Eastern Washington next season. "I think they're great ... having great competition on the games you play in the FCS," Klieman said. David Samson / The Forum
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FARGO-There was a time when the formula for scheduling football games for North Dakota State comprised mainly of paying a couple of marginal Division I FCS opponents a guarantee to come to Fargo and finding an FBS opponent to pay NDSU a guarantee. The poster child with that philosophy peaked in 2011.

That's when the Bison hosted Lafayette and and St. Francis, two programs in the state of Pennsylvania that will probably not contend for top 10 FCS status anytime soon. The Bison followed those two victories by a combined 98-9 with a 37-24 win at the University of Minnesota.

The following year the Bison defeated Robert Morris University (Pa.) and Prairie View A&M (Texas) by a combined 118-7, two games sandwiched by another FBS win at Colorado State. The method was working-the Bison got two easy wins at home in front of sellout crowds and received a nice paycheck of at least $300,000 in winning at an FBS school.

Life was good.

But that good life was also about to dry up. NDSU is 8-3 against FBS competition and calls to those schools started to go unreturned, so to speak. Moreover, the Big Ten Conference issued a mandate not to schedule FCS competition, therefore taking away several potential regional-type FBS opponents.

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The NDSU and Iowa game slated for Sept. 17 was scheduled in 2011. Illinois State plays at Northwestern and Indiana State is at Minnesota today, and after that, there will be no Big Ten opponents for either the Redbirds or Sycamores.
"They're not talking to us, I know that," ISU head coach Brock Spack said of the Big Ten. "I appreciate Northwestern for honoring the contract like they are but I don't think you'll see it anymore. It's nice for us. It's centrally located, an easy bus trip and a good payday but apparently we will not be playing those games anymore."

So the Valley has adjusted.

And the Saturday, Sept. 10, Eastern Washington at NDSU game is a prime example.

Big Ten opponents have been replaced by perennial FCS top 25 programs and the Bison are hopping on board. They recently signed a home-and-home with Delaware, which will come to Fargo in 2018 with NDSU traveling to Newark, Del., in 2019.

"I think they're great-having great competition on the games you play in the FCS," said Bison head coach Chris Klieman. "It's an unbelievably tough schedule."
Today is a major showdown of sorts for the Missouri Valley and Big Sky conferences. Three of the four games between the leagues involved nationally-ranked teams starting with the top-ranked Bison against the eighth-ranked Eagles. No. 3 Northern Iowa hosts No. 15 Montana and No. 17 Northern Arizona travels to No. 18 Western Illinois. South Dakota hosts Weber State in the other matchup.

The Bison will travel to Eastern Washington next season as part of the home-and-home agreement.

"I love it, our guys love it," said EWU head coach Beau Baldwin. "In the long run, maybe your record will suffer some years but if you never schedule these games, it never gives you the opportunity to do something special."

You could make the case that Eastern has been one of the FCS leaders in these types of games scheduling a home-and-home with Sam Houston State in 2013 and 2014. The Eagles traveled to Northern Iowa last season.

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The 2014 Sam Houston game was the first FCS Kickoff opener, the ESPN game scheduled a week before the rest of the country plays. NDSU has played in that game the last two seasons-at Montana last year and at home against Charleston Southern this season.
"I think playing these games does well as a whole for the FCS nationally," Baldwin said. "Being involved in these big-time, non-conference games just helps our level of football from a national standpoint. It makes people realize that, man, there's more here than people thought."

That includes the geographically-crunched Colonial Athletic Association, an East-Coast based league that has more competition for attention simply because of population. The CAA once ruled as the best FCS league but has since been overtaken by the Missouri Valley and NDSU's five-year title run.

Western Illinois head coach Charlie Fisher, who was previously an assistant at Richmond University of the CAA, says playing a team like Northern Arizona allows his team to "grow up in a hurry."
"It's a good challenge for us, but a great opportunity for us as a program to make an early statement," Fischer said.

It's debatable if the FCS expanding its playoff field from 20 to 24 in 2013 has played a role in more top-notch non-conference matchups. The theory: a loss to a top 25 team these days is not as detrimental to your playoff chances as it used to be.

Baldwin says yes, saying more teams are reaching the playoffs with seven victories. Last year, Western Illinois even made it with six.

"It used to be the model that you had to win eight games," Baldwin said.

Fischer also votes yes, saying "No team should be penalized for playing good people, win or lose. This is what it's all about. This is great. It makes it great for our fans. Quite honestly, it's the way it should be. This is what great leagues do, play other great leagues."

Northern Iowa head coach Mark Farley, however, says no, saying it's more about finding home games for his school. Not many people want to come to the UNI-Dome.

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"Finding an opponent that will play you at your home site is difficult to find," Farley said. "We're boxed in a corner as to what the choices are sometimes."

Related Topics: CHRIS KLIEMAN
Jeff would like to dispel the notion he was around when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, but he is on his third decade of reporting with Forum Communications. The son of a reporter and an English teacher, and the brother of a reporter, Jeff has worked at the Jamestown Sun, Bismarck Tribune and since 1990 The Forum, where he's covered North Dakota State athletics since 1995.
Jeff has covered all nine of NDSU's Division I FCS national football titles and has written three books: "Horns Up," "North Dakota Tough" and "Covid Kids." He is the radio host of "The Golf Show with Jeff Kolpack" April through August.
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