The word went out around the Football Championship Subdivision. North Dakota State’s reign as king was over. After a perfect 15–0 season, and their third straight national championship, they simply lost too much. So much so, in fact, last August, The Sports Network, who is second to none in covering the FCS, predicted the Bison would not be returning to Frisco for a shot at the four-peat.
“The (Eastern Washington) Eagles will knock out North Dakota State in the playoff semifinals and then go on to beat Southeastern Louisiana for another national title,” wrote Craig Haley, the FCS executive director for TSN. “The Bison are a much different team this season, having to replace 24 seniors under a new head coach, Chris Klieman.”
This postmortem, coming before the Bison stepped onto the field to defend their title, echoed from Frisco, Texas to Fargo. It certainly wasn’t lost in Cheney, Wash., Cedar Falls, Iowa or other FCS hotbeds. Even the mighty Bison couldn’t overcome the double whammy of having a new head coach along with losing 24 highly touted seniors. The Bison heard the naysayers loud and clear. And guess what? They didn’t take too kindly to the message.
“A lot of people doubted us,” said Kyle Emanuel following his team soundly defeating Sam Houston State, 35–3, in the semifinals to secure an unprecedented shot at the coveted fourth championship in as many years. Translation – the Bison had their own plans, regardless of what others thought of their chances. Plans that end on a familiar stage in Toyota Stadium.
It was last January, in his first meeting with the team as head coach, that Klieman made his expectations clear. “I remember Coach Klieman said at our first team meeting we fully expected to be back in Frisco this next year,” said Emanuel, who was named the Buck Buchanan Award winner last week as the best defensive player in the FCS. “[We] put in a lot of hard work, a lot of hungry guys, a lot of guys that were motivated and here we are.”
Yes, indeed, here we are. The Bison, and their senior class, have a shot to do something never done in the modern era of Division I football. Not by Alabama or Notre Dame, not by Florida State or Nebraska, not by Georgia Southern or Youngstown State. Not even by their predecessors, those 24 seniors that won three straight titles. If NDSU beats Missouri Valley Football Conference foe, Illinois State, who advanced to Frisco with a hard fought 21–18 win at New Hampshire, Emanuel and his senior class will finish their careers 58–3 with four national championships in four years.
That’s right. It’s remarkable, positively and absolutely remarkable. It’s so remarkable, it would truly be historic, historic because even the greatest of the great teams in major college football have never achieved it. It’s tough to even wrap your mind around it. With a win over the Redbirds, those 17 Bison seniors will finish their time at NDSU with more national championships, four, than losses, three. Let that sink in. If that isn’t remarkable enough for you, consider this. Out of the 24 teams in this year’s FCS playoffs, the best of the best, 14 of them entered the postseason with at least three losses this year alone.
From that first meeting last January with Klieman, you could say the Bison were on a mission to prove the naysayers and doubters wrong. “From day one, once Frisco ended last year, lots of naysayers out there,” said Carson Wentz, the Bismarck, N.D. native who has come into his own and emerged as one of the best signal callers in the conference after spending the last two years as Brock Jensen’s backup.
Wentz set the NDSU single season passing record in the victory over the Bearkats with 2,874 passing yards through 15 games. “We lost 23 guys, this and that, there were a lot of doubters. For these seniors and the rest of us, we took it upon ourselves and it means a ton to get back there.”
For his part, the new coach has endeared himself to the Bison faithful with his remarkable poise and a readily apparent devotion to his players. “I love those guys. Those guys, I love those guys, they’re why I’m sitting right here,” said Klieman, who not only had to deal with the loss of 23 seniors, but had to largely build a coaching staff from scratch with the departure of last year’s staff to Wyoming along with Craig Bohl.
“I’m excited for our whole program, for all the new guys I brought in, I’m excited for our seniors, our new players who haven’t gone (to Frisco.) This isn’t about me at all, this is about our program, I’m just blessed to be the guy who’s leading this.”
One more step remains, though. “Really excited, but ready to go back to work because at the end of the day, this is the game to go there, it’s not the championship game,” said John Crockett, who carried the ball for 166 yards and three touchdowns against SHSU. Crockett has been a key driver on the road to Frisco for the Bison, racking up 495 rushing yards and 5 touchdowns in three playoff wins. “At the end of the day, that’s what our goal is, to win the national championship.”
The players take the lead from their coach. Klieman explained the post-game celebration in the Bison locker room. “We’re chanting in there, ‘winter camp, winter camp,’” said Klieman, referring to the three-week period before the Bison take the field against the Redbirds. “They know we’re going back to work for three more weeks.”
The Bison aren’t done, not quite yet. One step remains. “It’s awesome, it’s just awesome to do it with this group of people, these seniors, we’ve been through so much,” Emanuel said. “To go back fourth year in a row, I’ll echo John’s comments, we’re not done yet, we’re not just satisfied to go, we want to win the whole thing.”