The formula to win an FCS national title has been well-established — play a physical brand of football, win the line scrimmage, be able to run the ball and stop the run, be efficient throwing it, be disciplined on defense, rotate on the defensive line, build depth through practice reps, invest in your strength and conditioning program, and put emphasis on special teams.
Most of that sounds like pretty basic, cliche football. But for a subdivision needing more teams to rise up and challenge North Dakota State, winners of eight national titles dating back to 2011, more conferences should mirror what the Big Sky Conference has done on and off the field in the last few years — stop playing finesse ball with high-scoring games, start playing a more physical style, and show a legit commitment to football success with several teams putting up new facilities.
While it’s quite safe to say a key in NDSU’s success is having four straight starting QBs play professional ball and three straight get drafted (two of which were in the Top 3 overall), the Bison always relied on its bread-and-butter of running the ball and playing elite defense. That’s the case even more this year as NDSU owns the No. 3 rushing offense (273.6 YPG), the No. 3 rushing defense (82.7 YPG), and the No. 1 scoring defense (11.21 PPG).
The Bison’s opponent in Saturday’s national title game, Montana State, is built the same. MSU has the No. 7 rushing offense (225.5 YPG), the No. 13 rushing defense (107.9 YPG), and the No. 2 scoring defense (13.43 PPG). The Bobcats went from an all offense, no defense program to a more championship-built team under head coach Jeff Choate from 2016-2019. MSU’s record improved every year under Choate, reaching the second round in 2018 and the semifinals in 2019, both resulting in lopsided losses to NDSU.
After Choate took an assistant coaching job at Texas, MSU hired Brent Vigen in February 2021. Vigen was the offensive coordinator at Wyoming, the same position he held at NDSU for its first three FCS national titles in 2011, 2012, and 2013. His impact in Bozeman was immediate.
“I didn’t know if we would make it here, but I knew we could,” Vigen said last week about reaching the national title game. “I wanted that message to be heard loud and clear. That was based on where I thought this program was at and where our talent was at.”
The combination of MSU’s veteran roster having two years to develop (the Bobcats did not play in the 2021 spring season) and Vigen’s finishing touches on the program with his knowledge of what it takes to win a title at this level has led the program to reach its first national title game since 1984.
“You can see Coach Vigen’s had a big impact on them already in a short time there as the head football coach,” NDSU head coach Matt Entz said.
When Craig Bohl left NDSU for Wyoming after the 2013 season and took a good chunk of his staff, including Vigen, with him, then-NDSU defensive coordinator Chris Klieman was elevated to head coach. Klieman hired Entz as his defensive coordinator, and the Bison won national titles in 2014, 2015, 2017, and 2018. Klieman accepted the Kansas State head coaching job during the 2018 playoff run, finishing out the season. Entz took over as head coach in 2019, going 16-0 and winning the program’s eighth FCS national title.
Despite the changes in coaching staffs and graduating talented senior class after senior class, the Bison still look like the Bison in what they want to do.
“We were probably pretty similar, especially in those last three years,” Vigen said about his time at NDSU. “What’s occurred since I’ve been there, there’s been two head coaches and numerous position coaches and coordinators. I think what they’ve been able to do offensively is highlight their stars. And that’s changed over the years. I think defensively, it looks a lot the same. But I know coach [David] Braun has brought his own ideas, much like coach Entz did when we left. They’re doing things a little differently, but as much as anything it’s highlighting the playmakers. While it hasn’t changed a lot, I think where those stars fit in each year has changed a little bit.”
With Vigen calling the plays, NDSU loved to go under center and run power with a fullback leading the way and multiple-tight end sets. A-gap power out of the I-Formation is still NDSU at its most comfortable. But over time with new offensive coordinators, the Bison have evolved and added more run packages out of the shotgun, like to motion wide receivers across the formation and utilize them in the run game or play-action concepts, sometimes have three RBs surround the QB, or run the QB more.
MSU was all about running the ball under Choate and did so in exotic ways at times, utilizing wildcat quarterbacks that played other positions (linebacker Troy Andersen or wide receiver Travis Jonsen). The Bobcats are more of a traditional running team this year, but mostly do it in the shotgun.
“I think the run game’s changed a little bit, especially you look at the last couple weeks or their last game against South Dakota State,” Entz said. “They relied more on the gap scheme quarterback run game with Isaiah [Ifanse] being out. Now with the addition of him, you’re going to have a two-headed monster back there. They’re operating probably more out of 11 personnel [1 RB, 1 TE] and less under the center than maybe what you would have seen a Brent Vigen offense back at North Dakota State or even at Wyoming. Again, coaches are learning, coaches are expanding. I think what they’ve done is they’ve taken the talent that was there at Montana State and put it in spots where it can be extremely successful.”
Defensively, MSU went from a 3-4 base defense to a 4-3 defense under Vigen, which is how NDSU also operates on that side of the ball. Bobcats defensive coordinator Freddie Banks, who is taking the DC job at Colorado State after Saturday’s game, was an NDSU defensive back from 2008-2010.
“Defensively, I think hanging their hat more on some single-high defense,” Entz said about MSU’s defensive scheme changes compared to prior seasons. “Freddie’s done a tremendous job of getting those guys to understand good, solid gap control defense. They’re playing a lot of people more than maybe what they had in the past defensively, so I think they’re able to be a better unit later in games.”
The formula hasn’t changed in Fargo. The building blocks and style of play were there in Bozeman, and now Vigen has put his finishing touches on it. This season is yet another prime example of how an FCS team needs to be constructed to win a title.
Former James Madison head coach Mike Houston famously said when he took over the program that he is building the Dukes to beat NDSU in the playoffs. The talent was already there. The change stylistically, notably emphasizing defense, was the difference, and JMU knocked off NDSU in the 2016 semifinals. Sam Houston went from a team winning regular-season games 49-35 and then getting blown out late in the postseason, to getting stronger on the line of scrimmage, getting more balanced on offense, and becoming more sound on defense. That led to the Bearkats beating NDSU, JMU, and South Dakota State to win the spring national title. Say what you want about the spring season, but the Bearkats straight-up beat some FCS powers and held their own physically. SDSU has beaten NDSU four times in the regular season since 2016. A big reason for that was the Jacks realizing they had to improve in the trenches to match NDSU. It’s also helped the Jackrabbits go from a second-round team to a consistent semifinal presence and national championship contender.
The recipe is clear, and the above are just a few examples.
Now, NDSU and Montana State aren’t playing for a national title just because they can run the ball and stop the run. Let’s not be totally naive here. The Bison and the Bobcats, along with several teams in the MVFC and Big Sky, have resources that other FCS programs can’t compete with, AKA financial support, athletic department support, and facilities. That results in getting better talent on campus. The two programs also don’t need to compete with regional FBS teams for attention and recruits, although they do go to hotbeds for skill position players.
Teams can try to replicate NDSU’s and MSU’s style of play all they want, but if that team’s entire athletic department budget is equal to the top FCS teams’ football-only budget, it’s going to be hard to compete in Tier 1 in the current FCS landscape of the haves and have nots. Recruiting budgets, coaching salaries to retain good assistants, facilities, amenities, cost of attendance, equipment, multimedia and social media content … those are resources that lead to fielding a better team. But those are resources that some athletic departments in the FCS just aren’t going to devote to football. And those teams will never threaten for a national championship.
However, multiple conferences have stated they are committed to football success and want to become part of the haves. The ASUN and the WAC conferences formed last offseason and revealed high aspirations in doing so.
“Right now we want to be the SEC of FCS football,” Eastern Kentucky AD Matt Roan said in July 2021 after the ASUN Conference formed. “We want to be the premier FCS football conference in America.”
Several teams left the Southland Conference for the WAC, and one of many reasons reported was because those schools that left didn’t think the remaining schools had the resources to commit to athletics success. The departing schools wanted better options to expand revenue and exposure for their programs.
The Big South unveiled its updated strategic plan last month, stating “the plan’s overall strategic objective continues the vision of the Big South Conference becoming the premiere non-FBS conference in the Southeast.”
Is this all lip service from these conferences trying to say the right things in hopes of staying intact in the world of realignment? The FCS, from a national perspective, certainly hopes not, especially with the likes of JMU, SHSU, and Jacksonville State moving to the FBS. As weird as it sounds, the FCS needs more athletic departments to take football seriously seriously. Invest in your football programs, play the brand of football you see this weekend in Frisco, and you have a shot to compete at the national level and raise the profile of your institution and conference.
Physical football and defense wins.
“Within our program and I think you look to Montana State, you can win a lot of football games when you’re able to run the football and play good defense,” Entz said. “Here at NDSU, our calling card has been winning the line of scrimmage and offensively being able to run the football, protect our quarterback, and at the same time stop people from doing that. What they’re doing is very impressive. Coach Vigen and his staff have done a great job of getting in there and laying this foundation of what the expectations are and what the standard is.”
Competing at a national level increases fan engagement, which gets more local businesses on board, which increases revenue opportunities. And success on and off the field makes your program more appealing for the FBS level, which is undoubtedly the end game for many FCS programs in some regions.
Some styles of football can win your conference, but it won’t win playoff games.
“This [NDSU] team, much like all the teams of the previous decade, do things how championship teams do them,” Vigen said. “They run the football. They stop the run. Play really good special teams. They’re the type of team that you have to beat, they’re not going to beat themselves.”
“We’re built to run the ball, stop the run,” MSU linebacker Troy Andersen echoed. “That’s how the north schools do it, the Montanas and the Dakotas. It’s kind of old-school football.”
A lot of things have changed in college football, both on the field and off the field. Those off-the-field changes, like the facilities arms race and cost of attendance, have created a divide in an FCS subdivision where money doesn’t grow on trees like in the FBS. Yet several programs and conferences say they want to be among the FCS elite, which will require a financial commitment.
And when it comes to on the field, maybe things haven’t changed so much in the FCS. Because “old-school football” is going to win games in December. Saturday’s matchup, yet again, proves that.
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.