FARGO, N.D. — North Dakota State rolled to its fifth straight Football Championship Subdivision title last year and then watched its star quarterback walk to the stage as the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft. Yet there was still something missing for Bison fans.
They didn’t get a chance to play a Football Bowl Subdivision team.
“The years we don’t play an FBS school, there is some disappointment there,” North Dakota State athletic director Matt Larsen said. “Our fans want to see how we stack up.”
The Bison certainly have no need to raise their profile with an unprecedented title run and two appearances on ESPN’s “College GameDay,” which is normally reserved for FBS schools. Yet they are constantly putting out feelers to FBS teams and recently announced games at Oregon in 2020 and Colorado in 2024.
So why do it? Contrary to popular belief, Larsen said, it’s not all about cashing in.
“There is both a philosophical and financial piece to it,” Larsen said, noting that FBS games typically fetch a paycheck between $300,000 and $600,000. “For an FCS program, that is a nice chunk of change to help support the operating budget. Philosophically, it’s something that resonates with our fans.”
Bison fan Bob Clark, who has attended 418 straight North Dakota State football games, said he and fellow supporters enjoy the atmosphere of the FBS games compared to sitting in half-full stadiums at other schools.
“I wish we could play an FBS team every year,” Clark said. “We used to travel to Morningside and sit in front of 400 people watching a game. Now we’re in a 65,000-seat stadium at Kansas State and a 70,000-seat stadium at Iowa. It’s a different feeling.”
Last year’s hiatus broke a five-year streak of FBS matchups for the Bison, who in that span defeated Kansas, Minnesota, Colorado State, Kansas State and Iowa State. Following the 2014 win over the Cyclones, college football pundits warned FBS schools to stop scheduling North Dakota State. The Big Ten, coincidentally, announced before the 2015 campaign that it would no longer play FCS teams.
Larsen said it has been challenging to find FBS schools to take the leap, which is one reason why Oregon and Colorado are scheduled so far out. In addition to fears of losing to the Bison, North Dakota State’s physical style of offense and defense gives pause to FBS teams, Larsen said.
“We do get a lot of pushback,” he said. “That is a great sign of respect for what the football program here has done.”
The Big Ten’s decision to nix FCS games has cost NDSU the opportunity to play closer to home, which boosted fan support for a team that already travels well and helped the Bison steal a few players on the recruiting trail. North Dakota State had its best classes from the state of Minnesota after it started playing the University of Minnesota.
This year the Bison play at Iowa, a game that former North Dakota State athletic director Gene Taylor lined up before moving on to become Iowa’s deputy athletic director. Although this year’s Hawkeye squad is probably the most formidable FBS opponent the Bison have ever played, Taylor said he is taking a lot of ribbing around the office.
He also agreed with Larsen that it’s about more than money.
“I think if you ask the (North Dakota State) players, they want to come into Iowa and show they can compete, or at Oregon or those other places. They’re a pretty confident bunch,” Taylor said. “The coaches always get a little nervous, but they know it’s part of the gig. If they can win the game, good for them, and if they can play well, it doesn’t hurt them.”