The best game of the 2019 FCS regular season is Saturday as No. 1 North Dakota State travels to rival and No. 3-ranked South Dakota State. The hype around this game heightened to another level when ESPN's College GameDay announced it'd be in Brookings.
While the stakes aren't as high as last year's semifinal game for obvious reasons, the implications in this game are huge at the conference and the national level.
Here is what's at stake in this game:
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The trophy in this rivalry game has become even more coveted in recent years. NDSU dominated the series and won every Dakota Marker game from 2010-2015. But then the Jackrabbits took the Marker in 2016 and kept the Marker in Brookings in 2017. The Bison won it back last season.
Those two SDSU wins have brought more intensity to this game and made the trophy feel more valued.
The swapping of the Dakota Marker not only strengthened the rivalry, but it upped the social media game of fans, players and coaches. A one-sided rivalry, like it was in the first half of the 2010s, certainly dulls down any animosity. But once SDSU took that Marker in 2016 and kept it the next year, followed by NDSU reclaiming it last year, it's added some online bragging rights to the mix.
Now we're getting to the really important stuff.
This game could very well decide the conference championship. Now, going back to 2016 and 2017, the Jacks weren't able to claim the title to themselves despite beating the Bison. In 2016, SDSU dropped a game to Illinois State two weeks after beating NDSU and the Bison and Jacks shared the MVFC championship at 7-1. Then in 2017, SDSU had two early Valley losses before defeating the Bison, who went on to win the title outright at 7-1.
NDSU and SDSU are 3-0 in the standings right now. If the Bison get a win Saturday and then not trip up the next week at Youngstown State, it should be smooth sailing from there. An SDSU win has the Jacks controlling their own destiny with challenging games remaining against Northern Iowa and Illinois State. But both of those games are at home.
Home-Field Playoff Advantage
On paper, it looks like the winner of this game is in line for a No. 1 or 2 playoff seed and the loser a probable No. 3 or 4 seed. As mentioned above, the winner has to avoid any hangover performances. And the loser needs to stay clean the rest of the conference slate. There's also the chance of teams like James Madison and Sacramento State dropping a game, which would mean the loser of this game would be in the discussion for the No. 2 seed.
Obviously, no player or coach from either team cares about these long-term stipulations of this game. But it's the reality from a national perspective. The winner Saturday puts itself on a terrific path to Frisco, Texas, for the national championship game.
Does it mean SDSU is winning the national title if it comes out on top Saturday? No, and 2016 and 2017 prove that. Does it mean the Bison are going 15-0 if they win this weekend? No, and 2015 proved that when No. 2 NDSU pounded No. 5 SDSU 28-7 in Brookings and then went on to lose to a 2-3 South Dakota team two weeks later.
But as much as both of these programs and their fans would hate it, there's a real chance these two teams meet up again in the semifinals. The winner of Saturday's matchup could decide who's hosting that December game.
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