The scene and energy leading up to today’s FCS national title game were at an all-time high in Frisco, Texas. Montana State and North Dakota State fans packed the lots for the best tailgating atmosphere I’ve experienced in nine trips here. The buzz was at a fever pitch as fans lined up to get into Toyota Stadium. And the music right before kickoff had fans on both sides jumping up and down in their seats.
It was a peak three-hour buildup for the championship game. But what transpired in the next three hours was a buzzkill, drained a lot of the noise/energy out of the stadium, and demoralized every fan base in the FCS outside of NDSU.
NDSU bullied Montana State and its No. 2 FCS scoring defense. Billed as one of the best defensive lines in the FCS, MSU was gashed by the Bison’s rushing attack led by a physical offensive line. NDSU won 38-10, outrushing the Bobcats 380-156 en route to its ninth FCS title dating back to 2011.
Of course, the Bison players, coaches, and fans had a blast. It was NDSU at its finest, just grinding away at the will of MSU. The Bison deserve endless amounts of credit for sustaining this dynasty and winning this game how they did. This isn’t to take away from another memorable day in program history. But how the game unfolded was not the only reason the energy seemed to be zapped in the stands and also the press box filled with NDSU, MSU, and national media just shaking their heads at the domination.
It started when MSU freshman phenom QB Tommy Mellott limped off of the field after the opening drive with a lower-leg injury. He did not return, and seeing him barely being able to walk on the sideline before heading to the injury tent was more dampening than the morning rain on the mood of a pumped-up MSU crowd that showed out in tremendous numbers.
Then it was the playing surface. Once again, the soccer-playing grass surface did not hold up after a wet night and morning. Players couldn’t cut, linemen were slipping, and would-be big plays didn’t happen as ball-carriers fell down trying to juke. It hurt the product on the field, and it’s something FCS leadership needs to talk to the NCAA about. To my memory, the playing surface has never been good in this stadium. Frisco is a terrific host for the title game, and its contract to host goes through 2025 with a 2026 option. The size of Toyota Stadium is fine. The biggest crowd for an FCS title game here was 21,836 people for North Dakota State vs. Jacksonville State in January 2016. Today’s attendance was 18,942. The field is the issue, and watching players slip was another buzzkill and made us all go “My goodness, this is ridiculous” in-between plays.
Lastly — and this is no fault of NDSU because its program should enjoy this championship as much as any other — but the Bison not only demoralized MSU on the field but those all around the FCS. The Bison looked beatable most of this season, not exactly winning games in dominant fashion. This was the “least dominant” NDSU team since 2010. And this was the best MSU team in decades, a team thought to be able to match NDSU’s physicality in the trenches and who beat South Dakota State (the only team to beat NDSU this season) in strong fashion to advance to Frisco.
But if this MSU team can’t beat this NDSU team, who is going to knock NDSU off next year? Or the year after? The Bison return a good chunk of their starters in 2022.
I wrote about more FCS programs needing to invest in football earlier this week. NDSU’s success has been good for the FCS. I believe that. The Bison have elevated the play of several teams. They give the FCS a big-time feel with great home playoff games and an amazing Frisco turnout. But the standard the program has set is an unattainable standard for a majority of FCS teams.
The point of Division 1-AA back in the 1978 D1 split was never to have huge revenue-generating football teams that put up million-dollar practice facilities. In today’s age of college athletics, though, if you can do that and offer things like cost of attendance, you’re going to. Very few FCS schools can/want to match NDSU’s resources. Montana State is one.
“I truly believe that we continue to close it, but they’re not slowing down either,” Brent Vigen said after the game. “So I think that’s going to continue to be the message. … We have to keep getting better every day. That’s in the weight room, that’s as a program in general. I think we’ve got to keep pushing the envelope. That’s what North Dakota State has continued to do in every facet of that program. They’ve continued to push the envelope, and credit to them.”
NDSU making it to Frisco every year isn’t necessarily bad because of how well the fanbase travels. However, NDSU winning eight national titles in the 2020s isn’t good for the subdivision. It’s not good for any league. To be fair, each division of college football has its haves and have nots. The FBS also features mostly the same teams at the top every year. But in a 24-team playoff bracket that we all brag about, the divide getting bigger in the FCS is not good. It’s bad when fans of other FCS programs (teams that do make the bracket) are in my mentions calling the playoffs boring. Again, not the fault of NDSU. But it begs the question that with each FCS title the Bison win, does it take the shine off of the playoffs?
The playoffs being boring for other fans doesn’t matter to the NDSU football team, obviously. Title No. 9 means just as much as title No. 3 for the players on those rosters.
“To win a ninth championship, I like what we did with our hype video. This was the first championship for this team,” NDSU head coach Matt Entz said. “Don’t get caught up too much in the numbers. But I am super excited for this group of young men and the fact that they were able to end this season in championship form.”
However, since we’re talking about the health of the FCS landscape, would the subdivision rather have NDSU dominate the 2020s again and have teams with strong resources like SDSU, Montana State, and Montana playing every year deep in the playoffs rather than have semifinal games in front of 10,000 fans and a Frisco matchup that doesn’t sell out?
With James Madison, Sam Houston, and Jacksonville State moving to the FBS and supposed changes coming to the NCAA structure, what the FCS is and what the teams in it want to be are at a crossroads.
NDSU going FBS is a whole different column. But to sum it up — money, location, and no invite.
Unless the Mountain West Conference extends an invite to NDSU, and it’d likely have to be football-only with NDSU’s athletic budget, the Bison will be an FCS program for the foreseeable future. The chances of that invite ever happening seems low, and will only slightly increase if the Big 12 wants to expand and grab teams like Boise State and San Diego State, making the Mountain West decide if they then want to add teams in their place.
The moral of the story as I ramble and jump all over the place is how this game unfolded tells the FCS community that the gap in the FCS is still large. It’s NDSU and everyone else, even more now that its biggest threat JMU is going FBS. And we’re talking the gap in the postseason, not the regular season. The longer that gap stays open, the worse it is for the FCS. At least give us three other teams that can win five national titles in the 2020s while NDSU wins the other five, right?
Covering a modern-day dynasty is great. NDSU is a first-class program, and its fan base is wonderful. What NDSU is doing cannot be put into proper words of praise and admiration. So I hate to be a buzzkill. But everything that happened today was a buzzkill from an FCS national perspective — not necessarily NDSU winning, but how it won.
Congrats to the Bison on an incredible season and win. We’ll undoubtedly see you again next January in Frisco. Maybe pack soccer cleats next year too.
Sam’s coverage of the FCS began in 2012 as the sports editor and eventual editor-in-chief of NDSU’s The Spectrum. After graduating in 2015, he spent three years in the newspaper and magazine industry while starting his work for HERO Sports in the fall of 2016 as a freelancer. In May 2018, he joined the website full time as the Senior FCS Analyst.