Welcome to a new series in our summer FCS coverage. We'll take a look at each 2016 FCS Playoff quarterfinalist and discuss how their fan base should feel entering this season. Can they make another playoff run? Are they a national title contender? Should they be worried about a drop off?
We'll talk about it all each week for the following quarterfinal teams:
North Dakota State football fans rolled into the 2016 FCS Playoffs riding a six-year high that’ll probably never be experienced again.
Those years featured six conference and five national championships, five wins against FBS opponents, including No. 13 Iowa in 2016, two College GameDay visits, one SportsCenter on the Road visit, having their quarterback and North Dakota native Carson Wentz be drafted No. 2 overall in the NFL Draft and having countless national networks, websites, magazines and newspapers talking about the Bison.
Everything was going NDSU’s way again in 2016 as a ridiculous six-peat was looming with a No. 1 seed in the playoffs. But injuries began to take its toll. And quite frankly, the Bison ran into a team better than them for the first time since 2010.
James Madison strolled into the Fargodome for the semifinals and beat the Bison at their own game physically and athletically, winning 27-17.
Now let’s not ignore the fact that NDSU linebacker Nick DeLuca and defensive lineman Nate Tanguay, two NFL prospects, were out with injuries in the playoffs. But any hypothetical scenario brought up about what happens if those two play against the Dukes should be ignored. That’s not how football works. Injuries happen to every team. And like NDSU head coach Chris Klieman said this spring, JMU’s backups were better than NDSU’s backups.
The Bison enter 2017 no longer the defending champs and without the word streak hovering above them. They are still the top program to beat in the FCS. The target on their back only lessens a little. But the pressure of being that team to end the string of national titles is gone.
NDSU will look like a rejuvenated team this year. And that’s exactly how the fan base should feel – rejuvenated.
It seems each upcoming season is the most anticipated for the folks in Fargo. The trend looks to continue for 2017, as social media shows a hyped up fan base.
This offseason is different, though. Instead of the argument being who can knock off NDSU, it’s turned into if the Bison dynasty is actually over, or just suffered a chink in the armor.
From simply looking at the roster, NDSU should be a better team than last year.
The defense has a chance to be one of the best units the FCS has seen in recent years with all-American players DeLuca, Tanguay, defensive end Greg Menard and safety Tre Dempsey returning. The entire secondary is back, the defensive line loses one player in its rotation and the linebackers have three players with starting playoff experience.
Offensively, junior quarterback Easton Stick is 20-2 as a starter. The running back group is deep, talented and speedy. A playmaker at wide receiver desperately needs to emerge, but Stick has eight of his top 10 targets returning.
The big question mark will be on the offensive line, which will have three new starters. Overall, this is the most experienced Bison team since 2013.
No one in the right state of mind is counting the Bison out of national championship contention. The popular preseason pick is JMU and NDSU meeting in Frisco.
If the 2016 season has shown anything, though, it’s that FCS teams are using the Bison’s formula to catch up to them. JMU head coach Mike Houston took a talented team, made them a physical team in his first year and saw immediate success.
South Dakota State has gone to more of an aerial attack than on the ground, but they showed a dual-threat quarterback with weapons on the outside can create havoc on an NDSU defense.
North Dakota has had a dramatic turnaround under head coach Bubba Schweigert with a strong run game and disciplined defense. The Fighting Hawks are close to being in the national picture.
Physicality will win you an FCS championship. Speed will only take you so far in a 24-team bracket played in December.
In the three weeks leading up to the national title game two seasons ago, Jacksonville State was predicted to be the toughest championship opponent the Bison would see. SEC transfers littered the depth chart after all.
NDSU won 37-10.
After defeating Iowa last season, NDSU was ranked No. 27 in the Associated Press College Football Poll, ahead of teams like Boise State, Oklahoma State, Notre Dame and Oregon. Nothing and no one looked to be getting in their way as the ceiling continued to get higher.
Until someone did on Dec. 16.
NDSU isn’t going anywhere for awhile in the national title conversation. Yet the competition at the top of the FCS is the most intriguing it’s been in years. The Bison deservedly remain favorites to retake its throne in many people’s eyes.
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