North Dakota State knows a thing or two about how important home field advantage is in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. Just ask Georgia Southern, South Dakota State, Coastal Carolina, New Hampshire, Sam Houston State, and the litany of other FCS powers that have ventured north and tried to corral the Bison at the Fargodome in December. Unlike those Lexus commercials, it wasn’t exactly a December those teams care to remember.
During each of the four national championship runs going back to 2011, while tailgaters gladly braved subzero temps in the west lots of the dome aided by plenty of liquid prompting, NDSU had the advantage of playing in the climate-controlled environment of Gate City Bank Field all the way to Frisco as a result of securing either the No.1 or No. 2 overall seed for the playoffs. Their record speaks for itself, the Bison were a perfect 12-0 in those games. Bison Nation is as playoff-seasoned as their football team and knows how to turn it up a few notches in December, creating an atmosphere unlike any other in college football with the noise levels reaching that of a jet engine on takeoff, frequently topping 100-plus decibels.
So much so, that this Sunday, when the FCS playoff selection committee announces the 24 teams qualifying for a shot at dethroning the Bison, opposing teams will breathe a giant sigh of relief if their road steers them clear of the Fargodome. Last year, after a playoff loss, one head coach explained that playing at home gave NDSU at least a touchdown advantage before the game even started.
If all that is just background noise to you, maybe this will grab your attention: The last team to win a national championship that did not have the advantage of playing their postseason games at home? You have to go back to 2008 when Richmond won two road games then beat Montana for the title.
That’s why in the next few days, Bison fans will hear and become plenty familiar with McNeese State, the other team presumably competing with NDSU for the No. 2 overall seed when the playoff field is announced Sunday at 10 a.m. on ESPNU. Assuming the Bison and Cowboys each hold serve on Saturday, one of them is a lock to secure home field advantage on the side of the bracket opposite Jacksonville State, the team that’s held an iron grip on the No. 1 ranking for the last ten weeks. That, too, assumes JSU wins at Murray State (3-7) this weekend.
Viewing it objectively, of course, the evidence supports NDSU’s case for the No. 2 seed. At first blush, though, MSU seemingly has the advantage. If they handle business in the regular season finale at Lamar (5-5), the Cowboys will be one of the two teams in the FCS to finish undefeated with a 10-0 record. (Dayton is 10-0 and will close its season at Drake.) But that doesn’t begin to tell the full story. Not even close. We need to dig into the evidence to see why the Bison, not the Cowboys, have earned the No. 2 seed. And here’s just a taste – while MSU may finish undefeated, they’ll do so with the same number of Division I wins as NDSU has, nine.
So, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, let me put on my lawyer hat and make the case for the Bison to receive the No. 2 seed over the Cowboys.
Exhibit A: NDSU plays in the toughest conference in the FCS
The Missouri Valley Football Conference is the toughest conference in the FCS. The Gridiron Power Index (GPI) is the ranking system for the FCS used by the College Sporting News and bills itself as a top indicator of at-large playoff selection. The MVFC has six teams in the GPI’s Top 25, including NDSU at No. 1. The MVFC is, by a large margin, the top-rated conference in the GPI. It doesn’t get any tougher than playing in the MVFC. By contrast, the Cowboys play in the Southland Conference, which comes in ranked No. 9 of 14 conferences in the FCS.
Exhibit B: Nonconference competition
The Cowboys played a single nonconference game. It was against a Division II opponent, Mississippi College, a team that finished 0-8 versus other Division II teams. While MSU elected to play a team that is transitioning from Division III to Division II, NDSU played a tough nonconference schedule, including a trip to one of the most difficult places to play in the FCS, Montana, where the Bison fell on the game’s last play. The Bison dominated two other Big Sky Conference foes, Weber State and North Dakota, by a combined score of 75-23. Montana and North Dakota are playoff contenders, with Montana all but ensured a playoff spot with a victory over rival Montana State, and North Dakota likely to lock up one of the last spots in the field with a win over Cal Poly.
By giving the Cowboys the higher seed, the playoff committee would be encouraging FCS teams to schedule weak nonconference opponents rather than the high profile, must-see TV that the whole country saw when the Bison and Grizzlies battled to the wire. The FCS needs the exposure these games bring, and teams like NDSU should be rewarded for playing against other upper-echelon FCS foes.
Exhibit C: Strength of schedule
According to USA Today sports statistician and analytics guru, Jeff Sagarin, NDSU had the ninth most difficult schedule in the FCS. The eight teams above the Bison? All MVFC teams. Of all the strength of schedules in the FCS and Football Bowl Subdivision, NDSU was 76 spots higher than MSU. Translation, the Bison had a much more difficult schedule than the Cowboys and still managed as many Division I wins. Sagarin has the Bison as the top-rated team in the FCS. He has the Cowboys at No. 10. The winning percentage of each school’s opponents is also worth noting. NDSU played teams that, through this week, have won 52 percent of their games. Conversely, the Cowboys’ opponents have combined to win only 39 percent of their games.
Exhibit D: Quality wins
In addition to the Bison, the MVFC had six other teams ranked in the Top 25 at some point this year. NDSU played five of those teams and beat all five. Other than the Cowboys, the Southland Conference boasts one Top 25 team in Sam Houston State. The math is pretty simple, MSU played a single Top 25 opponent. According to the GPI, outside of themselves, only two teams in the Cowboys’ conference are in the FCS Top 60 – SHSU and Central Arkansas.
By comparison, with the exception of Missouri State, the lowest rated team in the MVFC came in at No. 38, and seven teams made the Top 30. If you throw in Montana and North Dakota, the Bison have played seven teams that were ranked in the Top 25 this year, going 6-1 in those games. That’s six quality wins for NDSU, and only a single quality win for MSU. Perhaps most importantly, NDSU has a win over a team, South Dakota State, that will be a Top 8-seeded team when the bracket is announced, and wins over two other playoff teams (if Northern Iowa and UND all win this weekend).
At the end of the day, the evidence points in a single direction. The Bison have earned the No. 2 seed, winning the MVFC’s auto-bid, the toughest conference in the FCS. NDSU has as many Division I wins as MSU, and did so by scheduling competent nonconference teams. The Bison have five more quality wins than the Cowboys, and potentially four wins versus teams in the playoffs. Top to bottom, NDSU’s body of work is more impressive than MSU’s, which should be reflected in their seeding.