When a team wins as many championships as North Dakota State has, they naturally become the villain in that league. So when NDSU and South Dakota State take the field for Sunday’s FCS national title game, 128/130 FCS fan bases will be cheering for SDSU. (University of South Dakota fans are probably Bison backers for this one.)
If social media is an indication, which of course is a dangerous lane to go down, FCS fans are chomping at the bit of what could happen this weekend.
That’s because there’s a level of expectation that this is the year the Bison get knocked off in Toyota Stadium. The odds say it. 27 out of 34 anonymous FCS coaches say it. And the online discourse between FCS followers say it.
This is SDSU’s most talented and complete team it has had. The Jacks have had NDSU’s number recently, winning three straight. And NDSU, a team that was already not packing the same punch as previous Bison squads, has multiple injured or beat-up starters.
The national narrative entering this game can be summed up like this: If not now, then when?
Meaning if this SDSU team doesn’t beat this NDSU team, then who will?
Whether they are aware of this narrative or not, SDSU players are blocking out outside pressure and ignoring the eyes of the FCS community being on them to dethrone NDSU.
“I don’t see it as pressure,” SDSU running back Isaiah Davis told HERO Sports. “Our mental strength coach [Kris Kracht] does a good job of setting our days out while here. Today is media. Tomorrow is business. And Sunday is business. But we know that if we want to win the championship, it goes through Fargo, whether it be in Fargo or here in Frisco. We know that, and we knew that before the season started. That’s why we’re prepared for this moment.”
On the other sideline, NDSU has faced “national title or bust” expectations from its passionate fans for years.
There’s a story that’s been shared over the years about an elderly lady approaching former NDSU head coach Chris Klieman at a store and basically expressing her condolences about the season when the Bison lost in the 2016 semifinals to James Madison. For most teams, a trip to the semis is something to celebrate and be optimistic about.
National titles are the expectation in Fargo, though. Anything less, and pessimism takes over. Some Bison fans want immediate changes in coaches and personnel. Others are more rational but still express disappointment. And fans of other FCS teams are quick to shovel dirt on the Bison dynasty. Yet that level of expectation are reasons why players choose to go to Fargo.
“You come here with the expectation to win the championship,” NDSU receiver Braylon Henderson, a graduate of Plano East High School near Frisco, told HERO Sports. “You kind of know what you signed up for. I don’t think it’s pressure. We have confidence in our abilities and our preparation … We take it day by day. Do things the right way, and you’ll come out victorious. Do the right things and the little things over and over and over, and that’s how you end up here. You just don’t worry about the future because then you end up getting performance anxiety.”
Just losing a game in general is rare for the NDSU football program. The Bison are 161-14 dating back to the 2011 season, their first FCS title. Losses to FCS teams have typically resulted in storming the field by opposing teams or fans, or have been described as program-changing victories in the moment. Such is life when you spend most of your time as the defending national champs and the No. 1 team in the country.
The pressure to win can be consuming. Worrying about losing rather than enjoying winning can be a concern. But NDSU running back Kobe Johnson told HERO Sports players can embrace pressure while lowering stress through preparation.
“We talk about pressure vs. stress,” Johnson, who said he and fellow RB TaMerik Williams are ready to go for Sunday after sustaining injuries in the playoff run, explained. “Stress is when you’re unprepared. Pressure is more of when you’re prepared, but there’s still that feeling that you have to go out and execute. Yeah, there is pressure on us to get the job done, but pressure can be good.”
The Bison have gotten the job done nine out of nine times in Frisco. They look for a perfect 10 on Sunday. But for the first time since their debut championship game against Sam Houston, the odds are not in their favor. Can SDSU deliver as the favorite? If not, the Jacks won’t be the only fan base let down. Pressure? No pressure?
“I don’t know if we feel that pressure, but there’s internal pressure with how hard we’ve worked,” SDSU offensive lineman Mason McCormick told HERO Sports. “Honestly, I wouldn’t want it any other way than to play these guys. I have a ton of respect for them.”
“It’s really cool to see our program progression and how this is our expectation now,” McCormick also said. “It is national championship or bust for us.”