It literally can’t get any bigger than this in the FCS as No. 2 South Dakota State visits No. 1 North Dakota State on Saturday. It’s just the second time this subdivision has seen the No. 1 and No. 2 teams face off in the regular season, per Craig Haley. No. 1 Northern Iowa defeated No. 2 Idaho back in 1992.
The Dakota Marker, MVFC title positioning, bragging rights, and high playoff seeds are on the line in this one.
SDSU is 5-1 overall and 5-0 vs. the FCS. It has one then-ranked win vs. No. 6 Missouri State, but zero now-ranked wins. Its Massey strength of schedule is 13th.
NDSU is also 5-1 overall and 5-0 vs. the FCS. The Bison have zero ranked wins, and their Massey strength of schedule is 41st.
What does this weekend’s result mean for both teams for playoff positioning? Let’s start with if the home team wins.
If NDSU Wins…
The matchup on the field seems to favor the Jackrabbits based on what we’ve seen so far this season. But it wouldn’t be a surprise if NDSU has a “remember who we are” performance to sober up the FCS community thinking the Bison aren’t so mighty.
A win puts the Bison in the driver’s seat for a Top 2 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs leading up to the natty. After this week and a bye, the Bison play vs. Illinois State, at WIU, at No. 16 SIU, and vs. No. 20 UND. The road trip to red-hot SIU could be tricky, but it looks promising for NDSU to win out after this week, especially with a solid UND opponent being in Fargo.
The Bison would be 10-1 overall and 10-0 vs. the FCS with three ranked wins, assuming SIU and UND are still ranked by those gamedays. While one could make an argument that an undefeated Montana team with three Top 10 road wins, or an undefeated vs. the FCS Montana State team with two Top 10 wins, or an undefeated Sac State team with an FBS win and two Top 10 wins, or an undefeated Weber State team with an FBS win and three Top 10 wins would be worthy of the No. 1 seed … an undefeated vs. the FCS and the defending champs with a win over the No. 2 team would likely get the top seed. See: 2021 Sam Houston
Regardless, a Top 2 seed guarantees a team home-field advantage, and NDSU would be a Top 2 seed.
Plus, those highly-ranked Big Sky teams mostly play each other, so things will shake out where two of them probably get knocked out of Top 2 seed discussions.
A losing SDSU team has no margin for error the rest of the season if it wants to position itself strongly for a title run. The Jacks lost twice last year before beating NDSU. And a week after their Dakota Marker win, they lost at South Dakota, which ultimately cost them a playoff seed and forced the Jacks to play Thanksgiving weekend and then travel all over the country for three straight playoff games.
SDSU plays at No. 20 UND, vs. Indiana State, at UNI, and vs. Illinois State. Next week is the definition of a trap game for the Jacks — A week after a physical and emotional game against the Bison plus UND’s track record of beating ranked foes at home. UNI is down this year, but a road game there is never easy.
If SDSU loses to NDSU and then wins outs, a 9-2 team with a 9-1 FCS record is still in the conversation for a Top 4 seed, assuming it’s a competitive loss at NDSU. Although the Bison, a combination of the highly-ranked Big Sky schools, and possibly a Delaware or Elon team that wins out could bump SDSU out of the Top 4 seeds because the Jacks may own just one win against a playoff-contending team — UND. (Unless Mo State and UC Davis make a run to end the regular season).
The difference between the No. 4 seed and the No. 5 seed is substantial when it comes to who’s hosting in the quarterfinals.
If SDSU loses to NDSU and then loses another game, a seed is questionable.
If SDSU Wins…
The Jacks rise to the No. 1 team in the country and are in the driver’s seat for a Top 2 seed. A hangover game at UND looms next week, but vs. Indiana State, at UNI, vs. Illinois State is not a gauntlet to win out if the Jacks handle business against UND.
As stated above, Montana/Montana State/Sac State/Weber State would have an argument for the No. 1 seed if one of them wins outs. But a Jacks team that is 10-1 overall and 10-0 vs. the FCS who beat the defending champs, beat ranked UND, and helped knock Missouri State out of the Top 25 is going to have a Top 2 seed and home-field advantage locked up.
An SDSU win this week, and then one loss somewhere later on still likely means SDSU would be seeded higher than a Bison team that wins out after losing to the Jacks. They would have identical resumes and SDSU’s head-to-head would win out. But this does put the Big Sky in a position to earn the Top 2 seeds if they have an undefeated team and a 1-loss team at the top of their standings. A little more on this below.
An NDSU loss could force the Bison to go on the road deep in the playoffs.
Multiple times in past seasons, the Bison have lost this game and it wasn’t a huge deal. Things shook out where NDSU still got a Top 2 seed because SDSU had a hangover loss and other results knocked teams out of Top 2 seed contention. The Bison may not have that luxury in 2022.
Previous years saw the Bison with one FCS loss to SDSU and several ranked wins. They won’t have a standout resume or strength of schedule this season, though. The Bison didn’t play any good FCS teams in the non-conference, and they avoid UNI and Mo State (who were thought to be playoff-worthy teams but are not currently ranked). NDSU would only have two ranked wins this year if it loses to SDSU and then wins out (assuming SIU and UND are in the Top 25 when they play in the final two weeks).
If the Jacks win out, NDSU would likely be bumped to a No. 3 or 4 seed behind SDSU and one or two undefeated or one-loss Big Sky teams with multiple Top 10 wins (plus an FBS win if it’s Sac State or Weber State).
Heck, even if SDSU beats NDSU, then the Jacks drop a game after while NDSU wins out, the Bison still may not be a Top 2 seed if, say, Montana goes 11-0 with three Top 10 ranked road wins … or Weber State/Sac State go a combination of 11-0 and 10-1 with an FBS win, multiple Top 10 ranked wins, and potentially tougher strength of schedule rankings than NDSU. And then in this scenario, SDSU at 9-2 overall and 9-1 vs. the FCS would still have a legit argument to be seeded over an NDSU team that’s also 9-2 overall and 9-1 vs. the FCS.
You also may have to factor in a 10-1 Delaware team with an FBS win and 3-4 ranked wins, or a 10-0 vs. FCS Elon team with four ranked wins.
Basically, the path to a Top 2 seed for the loser of this game is a helluva lot more challenging than previous years.
If NDSU loses this week and drops another game elsewhere, although unlikely, it would result in mass chaos on the Fargo streets and social media access in the region to be denied.
Obviously, there are a lot of results to come this season where the loser of this game can still somehow find their way to a Top 2 seed if those Top 6-ranked Big Sky teams all take turns handing each other losses and the CAA chops each other up. It’s just looking less likely than in previous years. The winner Saturday is well-positioned to make a run to Frisco. The loser may be forced to win at least one road game to reach the national championship.