Coping with Success: Conference Realignment and The North Dakota State Bison, Part Three

This is Part 3 of a multipart series. For part one please click here and for part two here. Or just scroll down. I’m not a very prolific writer soooo they’re pretty easy to find.

Going it Alone?

Dangerous to go alone

So we’ve made the case pretty solidly that NDSU itself can succeed on the highest level. However, I think its important to note that a legitimate way to contend with the fear that NDSU can’t make it alone is to point out that they likely wouldn’t have to. As they did with the jump from D-II, NDSU would likely move up with at least one partner school. Most likely this would be the South Dakota State Jackrabbits who stepped in to fill the gap after the University of North Dakota failed abysmally at cooperating with NDSU.

An aside: There is a great deal of pettiness and bitterness inherent in the NDSU – UND rivalry. The pettiness comes entirely from the UND side. When NDSU was planning to make the DI jump in the first place, they reached out to UND as a natural companion to make the jump with, primarily for travel purposes. (the two schools are only an hour apart so visiting schools could potentially save money traveling in sports like volleyball for instance by playing them back to back in a weekend). UND unequivocally turned them down out of sheer small mindedness. The two schools had already cancelled playing each other in football years earlier on UND’s initiative, and the [name removed due to NCAA stipulations] didn’t put this mentality aside to make a positive move for their athletic department. As such NDSU partnered with South Dakota State in their initial jump up, and even though UND eventually followed suit, the “partnership” likely will not (and probably should not) be revitalized at this time. NDSU simply does not need UND at this point. UND can go ahead and keep their air of superiority because of their hockey team. If NDSU went full D1 that point would be moot anyway. Now back to your regularly scheduled article.

UND aside, NDSU has a myriad of potential partners to choose form if considering a jump from 1-AA to 1-A. First and foremost is obviously SDSU. They have been just as competitive (although not dominant) as NDSU on the current level, and there is no reason to believe they too could not survive at the top level. Even this year where SDSU is clearly having a down year in football, they were still ranked top 5 in FCS up until NDSU dominated them, and are still at top 25 team at the 1-AA level sitting at #20. And while their Sagarin rating has taken a beating recently, falling all the way to #120, they’re still a competitive program, and with the added value they bring to the table in basketball, they’re an extremely strong partner for NDSU to continue to pair with. Moreover, bringing them along for the ride would decrease any cultural or geographic qualms inherent in an NDSU move up (due to the Dakota’s isolation). Moving the 2 Dakotas as a package deal is infinitely more appealing and tenable than taking only the 1 outpost Dakota school of the North.

11113 d1aa rankings

However, NDSU has other possible partners too. Perhaps most readily apparent are the two Montana schools. Both are top 25 1-AA programs (Montana State #5 and Montana #13) and both have strong Sagarin resumes each landing in the top 100 (Montana State #98 and Montana #91) Geographically they would definitely fit for fans from both schools to travel between sites, and culturally there is a lot of overlap between the Dakota’s and the Big Sky state, so NDSU could easily pair with either one of them or even form a 4 team super back to entice any conference which happens to have been recently poached by DI-A conference realignment poaching.

However, this prime grouping of talent at the 1-AA level and in a tight geographic package brings to light a new question. Rather than catering to a currently established conference, could NDSU simply spearhead a conference of its own, stacked with the premier talent of the 1-AA ranks?

The Hinterland Conference is Born

Admittedly I have no idea how difficult it would be to create a conference form scratch and jump multiple schools up a level simultaneously. I can only imagine it would be incredibly difficult. However, the option does seem enticing when you break it down. First, we’ll need a name and as my sub-header has probably elucidated for you I got this shit on lock. The linchpin around which the core of our conference will form is North Dakota. The most hinterland of all the frozen hinterlands. Moreover, these schools will all come form the fringes of the American sports consciousness so it only seems right to pick a name with requisite ‘David vs. Goliath’ undertones.

We’ll start with the core we’ve already established: NDSU is the lynchpin and brings SDSU with them. The two Montana schools join up and we have a solid geographic, cultural, and competitive core to work with. Now we just need to fill the rank and file to get a real conference. We’ll shoot for between 10 and 12 member schools and we’ll primarily be pilfering the Missouri Valley Conference (NDSU’s current conference) and the Big Sky Conference (NDSU’s former 1-AA conference)

sagarin missouri valley

big sky sagarin for montana schools

First we’ll start at the top of Sagarin and the 1-AA coaches pole ranks. My first choice would be the Eastern Washington University.

eastern-washington-university

They joined NDSU this year as one of the many FCS schools to upset their FBS counterparts, except they did it against a team ranked #25 in the country at the time. And currently Sagarin has them at a respectable #78 in the nation, while the coaches have them at #4 in 1-AA. They’re not as close to the Dakota schools as the Montana schools but its certainly not unreasonably to expect NDSU fans to travel to Cheney, WA. Plus they have this sweet red field that we could compare to Boise.

EWU-Roos-Field

Next I think we should turn our attention back to NDSU’s own conference, and a team that has been the Bison’s bane since it joined DI-AA, the University of Northern Iowa.

university-of-northern-iowa copy

This school plays NDSU hard every time they match up, and they are a legitimate football program that I personally think could compete at the next level. Sagarin (#85) agrees, and although they’ve fallen out of the coaches pole they were a top 5 team at one point this year so they get the nod to come on down. Moreover, we’ve already talked about how important Iowa ties could be for NDSU due to the geographical proximity and cultural similarities and they keep the core group of schools for our new conference rather compact so they seem like a must. And hey, they also bring 6 NCAA tournament appearances and one amazing upset to the table in basketball so this is clearly a school NDSU would like to partner with moving forward.

The next member pushes the geographic boundaries further to the limit, but they’re still a must for several reasons.

YSU_Penguins

Heck yes! First silly mascot of the article!!! Youngstown State is a top notch football program, they open up the Ohio market for future expansion (again, we’re trying to be a new Big 10 Jr. to usurp the MAC if they rudely spurn our advances right?) Again, tying back a little bit to our Big 12 argument, Youngstown state could indirectly ensure the long term viability of the conference by lending recruiting support. Ohio is probably the 4th strongest state for football recruiting behind Texas, Florida, and California so adding a connection to such a deep talent pool could benefit every school in the conference. Ohio kids might be more willing to play football in North Dakota or Montana if they knew they could return home to Ohio for 2 games during their college career and play in front of their friends and family. Plus, Youngstown is no slouch of a football program themselves sitting at #10 in the Coaches Poll and #94 for Sagarin.

Next, in order to bridge the gap from Ohio back to the Dakota’s we’d probably need to include one of the Illinois directional schools. The best candidate is probably Eastern Illinois because they currently have the strongest program of the 4 excluding Northern Illinois who have already gone 1-A.

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The panthers are currently #2 in the coaches pole only behind NDSU and #55 in Sagarin’s metrics (second highest 1-AA team behind only NDSU) making them the 2nd best football program in the state of Illinois (surprisingly behind Northern Illinois at 51 rather than the Illini all the way down at 79… way to go Big 10!) This opens up the state of Illinois to our new island of misfit toys, and in now way precludes future expansion into the state as Southern, Western, Illinois State, and Northern for that matter, would be welcome to join now or in the future.

Now our league is sitting at a healthy 8 members. You really need 10 to be a healthy and legitimate conference, and 12 allows you to split into divisions and hold a conference title game so 12 might be the number we shoot for. So while we’ve established a solid competitive and geographically united upper echelon, we have some choices for filling out the bottom of our league.

It might be best that Southern Illinois join the party right now as they’re hanging around the top 100 for Sagarin checking in at #101 and could provide rivalry fodder for the panthers and penguins. As mentioned, Illinois State (Sagarin 151) and Western Illinois (Sagarin 166) could also be options, but they might drag the reputation of the league down.

The University of South Dakota but be a nice addition for continuity’s sake but they’re struggling too at 161 for Sagarin.

Another important angle would be to strengthen the Western flank and help out Eastern Washington by expanding into Idaho. The Idaho Vandals, a WAC refugee about to drop back down to 1-AA as a result of the death fo the WAC could be an interesting target because we could throw them a life raft and keep them afloat in 1-A. They are however deeeeefinitely struggling this year hanging out at Sagarin 169. We could also look into their fellow WAC victims New Mexico State (also struggling) but they would really throw off the geography too much and be too stranded to likely thrive in our conference so they remain a second tier choice. To continue on the Idaho route we could also look to add Idaho State (Sagarin 201) just to give Idaho and E. Washington some more opportunities but that would easily be the weakest team in the conference.

However, very few conferences really remain solid top to bottom. Even the SEC juggernaut is routinely criticized for benefiting from the weakness of their basement dwellers. The conference would either need to lure away a current 1-A school or two or simply cope with adding a lesser team. My personal choice would be to go with the 2 Idaho schools (to justify the E. Washington entry) to get us to 10. Then add the admittedly unprepared University of South Dakota to shore up and justify the Dakota center, and then Southern Illinois simply because they are currently the strongest of the remaining Illinois schools (the others could be added later) and shore up the Eastern flank. That would put us at 12 schools, 8 of whom would be in the top 100. This is a conference that could easily grow together and become a viable competitor with conferences like the MAC, Conference USA, and Sun Belt, and would probably be better than them more often than not.

While this option is obviously the farthest along the pipe dream line, it remains in question whether any of NDSU’s options for moving up are fully viable (whether this is because of leadership immobility or external circumstances),The fact remains, however, that there are options and logical solutions for an NDSU program willing to make the leap and jump up to 1-A. The only matter is an infrastructure and leadership willing to capitalize on current success and take a leap of faith into greener pastures, rather than playing it safe and holding firm to the status quo. NDSU can, and should move up now. And if they don’t act now they may lose the greatest leverage they will EVERY have toward moving up. There are a million options out there and the only questions is whether the decision to do so is right.

I know what I believe, but maybe I haven’t convinced anyone else. In any event, I’d like to leave you with a short article written by an idol of mine Chuck Klosterman earlier this football season that I stumbled upon while writing my own leviathan response to this issue. He makes a lot of the points I make only more succinct and better, but he also adds a lot of other important angles, trying to counter the primary arguments against NDSU moving up. (the argument I found most intriguing was were he references the current economic boom happening in ND due to the oil boom in the western half of the state).

NDSU has a chance to do something special for the people of North Dakota in a state that constantly exists on the margins of American society. In the long term something like this could really put North Dakota on the map nationwide and make them exist in the national consciousness. (and perhaps more importantly we could finally one up the Mount Rushmore having bastards in South Dakota!) I just hope the leadership realizes that and does right by the fans and the people of North Dakota.

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