After a one-year title game hiatus in 2016, North Dakota State returned to glory last year with its unprecedented sixth FCS championship in the last seven years, defeating reigning champ James Madison 17-13 in Frisco, Texas. The Bison are now just one championship away from surpassing Georgia Southern for most titles (seven) in FCS history.
Will NDSU set this mark in 2018? As we saw in the 2016 FCS semifinals, they are not invincible. However, it's very plausible we'll see NDSU lifting the hardware again this coming January.
Here are three reasons why North Dakota State will win the FCS championship again in 2018-19:
1. Bison return 13 starters — plus another former All-American
The Bison will return 13 starters to their 2018 squad, including national championship game MOP Easton Stick at quarterback, all three of their top rushers, its top tackler in linebacker Jabril Cox and a full rotation of pass-rushing defensive ends. Former All-American defensive end Greg Menard is also added back to the mix after missing last season due to a knee injury. He was good for 15.5 tackles for loss and 11 sacks back in 2016.
North Dakota State is well-stocked with postseason vets at almost every position, which is vital in a title push. Equally important, this depth allows teams to compensate for inevitable injuries that occur over the course of a long season.
The Bison were hampered by injuries all through last year. In addition to losing Menard for the whole season, key contributors Lance Dunn (running back), Ty Brooks (running back), Jalen Allison (cornerback), Jaylaan Wimbush (cornerback) and Levi Jordheim (linebacker) all missed some time with various ailments. NDSU still finished with the nation's fourth-best rushing offense and second-best scoring defense thanks to its depth.
NDSU running back Bruce Anderson and safety Robbie Grimsley have been named to the @AthlonSports #FCS Preseason All-America Team. The Bison are one of only four schools with multiple picks. https://t.co/WnsJWlS68c pic.twitter.com/YfIz1MsXm9— NDSU Football (@NDSUfootball) June 13, 2018
The return of Stick, a steady force under center, is a particularly welcome sight for the Bison faithful. Despite never being named an All-American — or even all-conference — the senior from Omaha, Nebraska has been one of the most consistent quarterbacks in the nation since taking over as a full-time starter in 2016. Stick was third in passing efficiency (169.5) and finished with 40 total touchdowns last year.
In the national championship game, he finished with 165 total yards and a touchdown pass in a defensive struggle. He also showed the alertness to scramble backwards 27 yards on the game's final play to run out the clock and clinch the title.
Stick will never wow people with his overall stats, but his composure under center has been a huge factor for the Bison in his three years.
2. There may be a changing of the guard among other title contenders
While NDSU has the incumbent Stick, some other recent challengers for NDSU's throne will have new looks under center in 2018.
James Madison, 2016 FCS champion after ending NDSU's bid for a sixth straight title in the semifinal round, has gone 28-2 the past two seasons and will be a favorite to challenge the Bison again in 2018. But the Dukes will be without their championship-winning quarterback Bryan Schor, who graduated last year.
Schor was CAA offensive player of the year back in 2016 and finished his JMU career with four school records. His ability to elude pressure and make big plays with his arm and feet gave NDSU some trouble in the past two postseasons. In his place, the Dukes may turn to last year's backup Cole Johnson or recent Pitt transfer Ben DiNucci. Johnson has thrown for three touchdowns and three interceptions in limited playing time (31-for-51) the past two seasons.James Madison returns plenty of offensive weapons like wide receiver Riley Stapleton and running backs Trai Sharp and Marcus Marshall, but play at quarterback will continue to be a question mark heading into the season.
Over at Sam Houston State, another recent contender that's reached the national semifinals in three of the last four years, the Bearkats also must find a quarterback replacement with the graduation of two-time Walter Payton Award winner Jeremiah Briscoe. SHSU boasted the top passing offense each of the past two years and will return two of its top three receivers.
Some new contenders expected to be in the 2018 title picture include Elon and Kennesaw State, who have combined for three playoff appearances and have never witnessed postseason football in the hostile Fargodome. Then there's rival South Dakota State, who has beaten NDSU twice in a row in the regular season but are 0-3 vs. the Bison in the FCS playoffs.
In last year's playoffs, NDSU held opposing quarterbacks to a 49 percent completion rate, one passing touchdown and six interceptions through four games. The defense racked up eight sacks. Five of those sacks and five picks came against two of the nation's best in Schor and Briscoe. Bottom line: Playing in the Fargodome against the Bison's pass defense is not a great situation for inexperienced playoff quarterbacks.
Speaking of the Fargodome...
3. Home sweet home in the Fargodome
North Dakota State has gone 58-5 over the past seven years in the Fargodome, and have won 59 of their last 61 nonconference matchups at home. In 21 playoff games at home during this span, the Bison are 20-1.
No one in the FCS — and very few in college football, in general — have a homefield advantage like the Bison. According to NDSU Athletics, the Bison reached an attendance of 18,000 or more fans in 54 straight home games from 2011-17.
We’re three months from the opening kickoff! The Bison open with four straight home games in September. pic.twitter.com/htAGPMTAF6— NDSU Football (@NDSUfootball) June 1, 2018
The resulting noise has statistically paid off for NDSU. In the past 22 playoff games at the Fargodome, opponents have been whistled for 52 false starts, good for 44 percent of total penalties called against them, according to NDSU Athletics. In addition, the Bison ranked third in the nation last year with a 25.5 percent third down conversion percentage allowed on defense — yet another situation where crowd noise is always a factor against visiting schools.
Chances are, the road to Frisco will once again go through Fargo in 2018. North Dakota State has earned a top three playoff seed for seven consecutive seasons and will likely be in the driver's seat once the first preseason polls come out in August.