How does the North Dakota State football program sustain this level of success? It's a loaded question for the FCS dynasty that's won six of the last seven national championships. For the most part, it's a combination of coaching, the strength and conditioning staff, taking advantage of its location in Fargo, tradition and having a championship culture that breeds winning.
But at the end of the day, what has allowed the Bison to win championship after championship is recruiting, the lifeblood of every college football team.
Often times, an FCS team strikes gold in one recruiting class and sees the results 4-5 years later and makes a run. Other times, teams take the FBS route, things click with that particular group and they make a deep playoff push. But they can never keep that national success going.
James Madison is the first team besides NDSU to make back-to-back appearances in the national title game since Sam Houston State did it in 2011 and 2012, the start of the Bison's five straight FCS championships.
JMU defeated NDSU last season in the semifinals and went on to win it all. This season, the Bison got their revenge and won 17-13 in Frisco, Texas.
After the first five national titles, the Bison brought back an experienced and loaded team the next season despite losing big senior classes. A reason for that is recruiting. NDSU is a developmental program. While their depth charts have always featured a lot of upperclassmen, there was always freshmen or sophomores as backups or even starters. Players are willing to only play on scout team and then special teams their first three years of their career to earn a chance at starting as a junior and senior.
Each senior class from 2011-2015 was stacked. And yet the Bison's only drop off has been a 2016 season that ended in a semifinal loss to the eventual national champion.
The 2017 seniors include Nate Tanguay, Connor Wentz, Jeff Illies, Nick DeLuca, RJ Urzendowski, Tre Dempsey and Chris Board as part of a big 19-player class. But once again, NDSU brings back an experienced team that, on paper, appears to be even better for the 2018 season.
Of the 22 starters on offense and defense in the championship game against JMU, 13 are returning. The Bison had 264 yards of total offense. All 134 yards on the ground were by players returning next season and 97 of the 130 receiving yards also comes back. On defense, seven of the top ten tacklers in Frisco return along with three of the four sacks. All 17 points return.
[credit]Robbie Grimsley (5) and Jabril Cox (42) are back to lead the 2018 Bison defense coming off an impressive performance in the national title game. (Photo by Jim Oxley/HERO Sports)[/credit]
Looking at the returning players, it's hard to find a glaring weakness for the 2018 squad.
- OL – The Bison lose both guards to graduation, but starting left tackle Colin Conner will probably move to left guard and Dillon Radunz, the most hyped young offensive lineman in recent NDSU memory should be the starter at LT for three seasons after tearing his ACL in the season opener.
- TE – The top two receiving tight ends are gone. Nate Jenson will become the go-to target at 6-foot-6 and Ben Ellefson caught five passes this season, three of which went for touchdowns.
- FB – Both fullbacks return in starter Brock Robbins and Garrett Malstrom.
- RB – Probably the most talented at this position in the FCS. The entire running back room is back. Lance Dunn was having an all-American season before getting hurt midway through, then returned in Frisco. Bruce Anderson played like an all-American during the playoffs. Head coach Chris Klieman called Ty Brooks one of the most electric players in the FCS. And Seth Wilson showed his play-making ability as a true freshman in the postseason.
- WR – Darrius Shepherd returns as the most explosive receiving option and had the key 50-yard score against the Dukes. The Bison need to develop more depth here.
- QB – Most importantly, Easton Stick returns and will be a four-year starter with a national title win. A number to keep an eye on is this: Stick is 34-3 as a starter. Former NDSU QB Brock Jensen has the most wins of any signal caller in FCS/Division 1-AA history with 48, a record no one thought would ever be broken. Stick could tie that with another 14-1 season.
- DT – The loss of Nate Tanguay hurts. He played his best game of the season against JMU. The Bison had a rotation of several defensive tackles, though, that made up for him regaining full strength all season, including starter Aaron Steidl, Cole Karcz and Blake Williams that all come back.
- DE – NDSU gets all-American Greg Menard back after he tore his ACL during fall camp. Menard will have an argument as the best defensive end in the FCS next season. Championship game starters Derrek Tuszka and Caleb Butler return, and the sophomore Tuszka may have exploded onto the scene with two sacks and two tackles for loss against JMU.
- LB – The Bison started seniors Chris Board and all-American Nick DeLuca in the title game. However, they'll have three returners with starting experience. Jabril Cox had a superstar freshman season, Levi Jordheim started seven games before getting hurt and Dan Marlette started two games in the middle for DeLuca. Klieman said he was having an all-conference type season until tearing his ACL.
- DB – NDSU has four cornerbacks with starting experience. Jalen Allison and Jaylaan Wimbush started all season before getting hurt in the semifinals. Converted WR Marquise Bridges and true freshman Josh Hayes stepped in and held JMU's passing attack in check. All-American free safety Tre Dempsey is gone, but all-American strong safety Robbie Grimsley returns along with James Hendricks, who had four interceptions in the first five games.
- Kicker Cam Pedersen returns and NDSU needs to replace its punter Jackson Koonce and four-year starter at long snapper James Fisher.
That's a loaded roster.
Of course, what shows on paper and how it actually plays out are two different things. But the Bison routinely get their returners to be one-year better and to not regress. And it's hard to imagine NDSU getting hit harder with injuries than they were this season.
All together, with the key departures JMU and semifinalist South Dakota State suffer, an early, early, early indication shows the 2018 Bison are heavy favorites to win a ridiculous seventh national title in eight seasons.