Photo By Nolan P. Schmidt
Instead of Oregon, it’s Central Arkansas. Join me in the chorus, Bison fans. Forget the Ducks, bring on the Bears. Hey, Herd and Horns and Chubs, Bears fans drink for free until this hellish year called 2020 is in the history books come January.
After all, the purple-clad team from Conway, Ark., has salvaged our fall season and what were once dim hopes of seeing guys like Trey Lance and Dillon Radunz putting on their yellow gold rush Bison jerseys one more time. It’s only one game, against a perpetual FCS playoff qualifier, but oh what a game it will be. Fill the coolers, fire up the grills and for one glorious Saturday, we’ll have some much-needed normalcy in a year that’s been anything but.
It was only a few months ago when the college football experts at ESPN ranked North Dakota State’s game at Autzen Stadium versus Oregon as one of the marquee non-conference contests in all of college football. The Ducks are the reigning Rose Bowl champs and finished the year as No. 5 in the AP Top 25 Poll. They’d be the best team, at least on paper, the Herd had ever lined up against.
For their part, the Bison capped an undefeated 16-0 season last January, winning their eighth FCS national title in nine years behind the record-setting and Walter Payton award-winning Lance. The offense was going to be explosively spectacular. With a veteran offensive line anchored by Radunz, a first-round NFL Draft prospect, and Cordell Volson, who’s also a legitimate NFL prospect, it may have been the most prolific unit in school history. Toss in Christian Watson, who had emerged as one of the best receivers in the FCS by year’s end, and weapons like Phoenix Sproles, Noah Gindorff, Adam Cofield, Kobe Johnson and Seth Wilson, the folks in the Fargodome would have needed a couple of bags of spare LED panels for the scoreboards because the Bison were set to light it up.
Alas, the breaking news on August 14 that NDSU couldn’t find anyone willing to play them, and had to scrap plans for a fall season, hit like a raw blizzard wind piercing everything in sight. The rumors. Oh, the rumors they’re a swirling. Nobody in the FBS (including Nebraska’s Scott Frost) wanted to play the FCS juggernaut. But had the Bison been FBS? Well, that’s a different story, with a potentially full fall slate.
Then, August 24 and Central Arkansas happened. Even though it’s a single game, it’s enough to sustain those of us who love the game and despaired at the idea of a fall without Bison football. As I said, you can go quack yourself, Oregon, we’ve got the Bears now. The game, set for October 3 at the Fargodome, is so big that Scott Van Pelt, the heaviest hitting personality in ESPN’s lineup of stars since Chris Berman started hocking something called CarShield, spent three minutes, an eternity on cable sports, in late August talking about this game starring the heralded Lance and the Bison.
Flashing Lance’s 2019 stat line on the screen, the segment included NDSU highlights at the Fargodome, and shots of the green and yellow-clad crowd that’s carved out a reputation as one of the best fan bases in the sport.
“October 3. Fargo, North Dakota. Mark it down. The NFL already has,” said Van Pelt. Van Pelt noted it’s the only Bison game set for this fall. But is it? Maybe the better question is, should it be? Should the Bison set their sights on angling for something bigger, like a bowl game invite this year? Say maybe, I don’t know, just spit-balling here, the Frisco Bowl or Las Vegas Bowl?
Two of the Power 5 conferences, the Big Ten and Pac-12, have canceled their fall seasons, as have several prominent Group of 5 conferences including the Mountain West and the Mid-American Conference. That leaves the SEC, ACC and Big 12 in the Power 5, and Conference USA and the American Athletic Conference as still playing this fall among FBS schools.
Last year, there were 40 bowl games featuring 80 teams. With four upper-level FBS leagues canceling their fall seasons, the Bison are suddenly a very attractive candidate for any lower to mid-level bowl. For reference, of the five FBS leagues still playing plus the FBS Independents like Notre Dame and BYU, only 39 teams finished with a .500 record or better. Suddenly, the Bison look like an attractive bowl team, even if they’re only 1-0. Tulane, Florida Atlantic and Kent State don’t travel quite like the Herd. Those FCS national title trophies and wins over the likes of Kansas State and Iowa also carry some street cred. Very good football team? Check, the Bison got that covered. More importantly, for bowl’s sake, a fan base that travels well – and isn’t too concerned with coronavirus – and spends money? Lots of money and fills local bars and restaurants desperate for business. Check, double-check and triple-check. Big-time players that can move the needle and give the networks something to sell? See above, check that too. It’s a compelling story to boot.
Is that the green and gold lining to this dark cloud? NDSU goes bowling, likes the taste and experience, and decides that after coronavirus turns the FCS into a post-apocalyptic version of itself, the subdivision is on borrowed time.
Hey, it’s 2020, man. I wouldn’t write anything off, including going bowling.
Everybody up for the kickoff, the march is on!