Coping with Success: Conference Realignment and the North Dakota State Bison, Part Two

This is Part 2 of a multipart series. For part one please click here. Or just scroll down. I’m not a very prolific writer soooo they’re pretty easy to find.

Our Little Baby is All Growns Up:

We’ve already talked about why now is the moment NDSU needs to act in terms of making the leap to bigger and better pastures. But I want to slow down for a second and explain just how drastically NDSU Football has outgrown its surroundings.

First off, lets start with the quick and easy. NDSU is the best team in NCAA Division 1-AA football right now. Nobody denies that. (26/26 on first place votes).

11113 d1aa rankings

Theres no question that NDSU is at the top of the 1-AA ranks, but a simple coaches poll like this doesn’t tell us just how dominant NDSU is and just how overmatched their competition is. For that we need to get a little bit stat nerdy. Enter the Sagarin metrics. For those of you who don’t know, Jeff Sagarin is the Michelangelo of college football ranking metrics. He’s the man when it comes to computer college football rankings and helps work on the BCS’s own computer ranking systems (though his own system is slightly different, and I believe better. Although its still flawed in small ways, but nothing is perfect.) Lucky for us Sagarin ranks all D1 football programs together whether they’re 1-AA or 1-A so we can get some especially interesting comparisons. So let’s take a look at what Jeff has to say about NDSU 8 games into their attempted 3-peat. Don’t worry… we don’t need to scroll down because NDSU is not only in the top 50, they’re #37 overall. (these pictures are gonna be a little small so please click on them to get the full size view)

Sagarin NDSU #37

Not only is NDSU 18 spots ahead of the next closest 1-AA competition (Eastern Illinois #55) these numbers put them above a staggering number of quality 1-A programs. For one thing, it puts them above traditional Mid Major Football darling Boise State(#38). It puts them ahead of both an undefeated Northern Illinois (#51) team and undefeated Fresno State(#52) (both likely to be this years BCS party crashers as long as they finish out their slate undefeated). But it also puts them ahead of some MAJOR traditional powers. Tennessee, admittedly down from their traditional success but still an elite SEC program is ranked #44. They’re ahead of an Iowa team (#42) that almost beat undefeated Ohio State last weekend. Ahead of big brother Minnesota (#59) and even Craig Bohl’s alma mater (and the school that fired him, sending him to NDSU) Nebraska (#46). NDSU is not just good, they’re good no matter who you compare them to. This NDSU team could hop into any D1-A program this year and compete, even a BCS conference. I’m not saying they’re run the table there, but this team would have no problem winning 6 games at the 1-A level this year and making a bowl game. There simply is no gap between NDSU and the upper division.

Where to Captain?

Set a course for the stars Lieutenant…


So where should NDSU look to land if they make the jump? Where is the right fit for the Lord of the Plains, the Mighty Buffalo? After all, when we left off yesterday we had determined it would take a perfect fit to get the “visionaries” in NDSU’s Athletic Department to agree to a move, even in the face of insurmountable evidence. Well, we need to consider a few factors, primarily geography (and the ability of fans to travel to road games) and competitive balance within the division (we’ll have our new best friend for life Jeff help us out with that). So I’ve pulled together a few conferences currently in existence that I think would represent the best fit for NDSU athletics. (again, football is going to be the primary deciding factor in these moves supplemented minimally by basketball, because as stated before conference realignment is all about football money). And we’ll move from the most plausible to the least plausible.

The Big 10

This would be a dream scenario for the Bison. Fan’s in Fargo primarily consider themselves part of the Big 10 umbrella (even more so now that Nebraska has moved from the Big 12 to the Big 10) so for the fan’s its a natural fit. Geographically, you could have instant COMPETITIVE rivalries with the Golden Gophers (aka traditional whipping post of NDSU football with the only blip being a lucky last second come behind victory in 2006 when NDSU was still fielding a fully DII roster) Iowa, and Wisconsin. And Nebraska really isn’t that far either considering how well NDSU fans traveled all the way to Manhatten Kansas this year. And NDSU already plays teams on a yearly basis from Illinois and Ohio. So the fit is there in terms of fan mentality and regional identity. Its more or less PERFECT geographically. Moreover, the style of play for NDSU would fit the slower paced, power running and mauling defense that is traditionally the Big 10’s MO. They would certainly make a hell of a lot more sense than who the Big 10 is ACTUALLY adding next year in Rutgers and Maryland. Those school could not POSSIBLY be further from the Big 10’s traditional fanbase, and even fans of those schools don’t seem to fully embrace the move. In all the x factors this really is a match made in Heaven for NDSU, and really should be for the Big Ten as well. Let’s take a at the numbers and see how NDSU would fit in this year.

Big 10 Sagarin 103113

We’ll throw NDSU into the “Legends” division, because as we’ve already stated that is their geographic ideal situation and its the less competitive division, meaning we could expect a quicker rebound from NDSU after moving up. As it currently stands NDSU would be the 3rd best team in the “Legends” falling only behind Michigan State (#19) and Michigan (#35) which is definitely understandable. But its way closer than you would think. NDSU and traditional power Michigan are neck and neck. I don’t think NDSU could consistently beat Big Blue, but if they played 10 times this year on a TRULY neutral site I’d say NDSU could win 3 of them. Michigan is down and NDSU is at an apex. That will change over time but RIGHT NOW NDSU could compete at the top of that division. Moreover, even when we look at the conference as a whole, NDSU would rank 5th overall in the 13 team league (12 actual members plus NDSU would make 13).

But let’s also take a look at Rutgers and Maryland once more, the two schools the Big Ten is nonsensically adding next year. Rutgers has an abysmal ranking (by NDSU’s standards) of #72 overall and Maryland, even after a quick start and a top 25 ranking this year is all the way down at #63. Both a far cry from NDSU’s #37. So had the Big 10 chosen to look in its own backyard and added NDSU, not only would they have found an expansion team which fit their mores geographically, culturally, and stylistically, THEY WOULD ALSO HAVE BEEN ADDING A BETTER TEAM!!!

Now, obviously the Big 10 added those two schools for financial reasons, not necessarily football reasons (they wanted access to both the Washington DC and New York City TV markets for the Big 10 network) and NDSU brings much less to the table economically, but as a pure football decision, NDSU and the Big 10 would have been a match made in Heaven.

The Big 12

But if not the Big 10, there is another nearby BCS conference that would make sense for the Bison. The Big 12 got brutally raided in the conference realignment shakeup losing Texas A&M and Missouri to the SEC, Nebraska to the Big 10, Colorado to the PAC-12, and almost losing Texas either to the PAC-12 or to independence (which would surely have sunk the conference a la the old Big East / current AAC). However, they didn’t go under (thanks entirely to Texas staying) and pulled the traditional Dutchman in the Dike by adding the West Virginia Mountaineers. But let’s take a little look and see if NDSU could have been a better fit.

big 12 sagarin ndsu

First off, the team the Big 12 tried to stop the bleeding with, West Virginia, makes absolutely no sense geographically. They are off on an island and have NOTHING to do with the Big 12 culturally (Texas football dominance), but do have ties stylistically (Dana Holgorsen plays an undeniably Big 12 style game with his wide open spread offense, and he also came with Big 12 ties. WVU also started the season last year highly ranked, making them look like a strong addition to shore up the lines last year). However, that addition and the geographic misfit look a lot worse this year while WVU is hanging out at a spectacular #69 ranking, and outside of wrecking Oklahoma State’s season they might as well have not played at all this season. NDSU, on the other hand, would fare a little better standing at #37 which would put them as the 7th best team in the ten member, divisionless Big 12. However, the Big 12’s numbers may be inflated. They have taken a lot of flak in the past for backloading their schedules so that they can raise their rankings early in the year and improve the chances one of their members makes it to a title game. Moreover, #32 overall is Kansas State, a team NDSU has already beaten this year and Texas Tech is certainly looking a lot more suspect after their loss last weekend. So it isn’t out of the question that NDSU could be the 5th best team in the Big 12 at least this year (surely getting blown out by Baylor, beaten down by Texas, and losing to the two Oklahoma schools). So NDSU could at least be competitive in the Big 12.

kstatenoooThis kid is well aware the NDSU could compete in the Big 12.

Furthermore, they’ve made a habit of playing Big 12 teams in the recent past in addition to Kansas State, so the geographic connection, although definitely worse than the case in the Big 10, wouldn’t be horrible. If the Big 12 added a second school (either from the 1-AA ranks with SDSU or one of the Montana Schools or even grabbing a Mountain West Team such as Colorado State) in addition to NDSU, thus bringing their members back up to an ACTUAL 12, they could also hypothetically split into two 6 team divisions. Taking Colorado State as our hypothetically partner then you could have a Big 12 composed of a North Division consisting of NDSU, Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State, Colorado State, and West Virginia (… dammit WVU… screwing everything up…) and a South of the 2 Oklahoma schools and the 4 remaining Texas schools. In such a system I see no reason why NDSU couldn’t contend for a Big 12 North crown consistently. All of those schools ebb and flow rather violently throughout history, and NDSU’s consistency could easily keep them in the top three of such a configuration year in and year out. The travel to West Virginia would frankly be impossible (so would the Texas teams in large part) but everything else is more than do-able and you could even create a legitimate rivalry with Iowa State.

So it wouldn’t be perfect, its not a stylistic fit, but given just a few dominoes falling at the right time, NDSU could grow into a culturally assimilated Big 12 team (especially with an Iowa State rivalry) and be consistently competitive in the Big 12 (especially if you consider the inroads it would provide into the fertile Texas football recruiting grounds. And by fertile I mean like octo-mom levels of fertility. Seriously. Ever seen Friday Night Lights? So much football talent in Texas…TIM RIGGINS!!!!) And it could be a win for the Big 12 too as long as NDSU proves competitive. They could help shore up their numbers, getting back to a 12 team conference and hopefully increase their stability as they move forward in this unstable time of conference realignment.

tim-rigginsfuture NDSU Fullback Tim Riggins

However, I think we all know that there is approximately a -72% chance that NDSU could hop straight into a BCS power conference straight from DI-AA so let’s take a look at some more logical and/or viable solutions.

The Mountain West

With the absolute  annihilation of the WAC (NDSU’s true best case scenario / ideal match of a conference… once upon a time) the Mountain West is probably the best case (and perhaps most realistic) option for NDSU at this time. However, the unfortunate reality is that its honestly not that realistic, as the fit isn’t nearly as obvious as it would be in say the Big 10.

On the positive side, NDSU already has a relationship playing several MWC teams in football (beating Colorado State and only losing to Wyoming on a last second field goal [as an aside… Wyoming brings infinitely less to the table than NDSU and yet they have been competing at the DI-A level for decades now… just to put this absurd debate in perspective… seriously I can’t come away from this point… WYOMING HAS BEEN DOING THIS SINCE THE 1960s FARGO!!! PLEASE REALIZE THAT THIS IS POSSIBLE]), and they already have relationships with some Mountain West schools in the non profit sports so I don’t really see this being a difficult change across the board.

Geographically the shift would be difficult but manageable. Playing the California teams is a stretch, but Fargo’s airport has direct flights to LAX anyway, and again the smaller sports already fly to California to compete on a regular basis so there is no reason the football/basketball team or the fans couldn’t do so. Traveling to Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah is do-able so its not that big of a stretch.

Stylistically the MWC is very diverse so even if there isn’t the same appeal as the Big 10 there certainly isn’t a detraction. The MWC shouldn’t have any problem accepting a hard nosed, consistent defensive team like the Bison (perhaps even to replace the loss of a similarly minded TCU team to the Big 12).

Moreover, competitiveness is probably NDSU’s strongest argument. During the Boise State/TCU glory years, the argument was made repeatedly that the MWC deserved BCS automatic qualifier status over conferences such as the inferior Big East. The conference has maintained the elite football status even after losing members such as TCU and BYU, and yet our old buddy Jeff would have you believe NDSU could immediatel be the class of the MWC. NDSU’s #37 ranking would put them at #1 in the MWC, one spot ahead of #38 Boise State.

MWC 103113

NDSU could slide right into the mix in the “Mountain” conference with little difficulty geographically or competitively. While the geography doesn’t mesh quite as well as it would playing schools like Minnesota and Iowa its certainly  not difficult, and I have no doubt that NDSU coudl compete immediately in what has become the single best “mid major” football conference in DI-A. I’m honestly not sure what else to say here because this just makes too much sense to hammer on… The MWC has even become a competitive (if slightly overrated) college basketball conference which NDSU could compete in and eventually earn the chance to receive even an at large NCAA tourney bid, not just a single seat conference champion slot as is the case in the Summit. Moreover, while the MWC appears satisfied with its current 12 team format there is no reason to believe continued realignment will not result in further pilfering of their ranks by BCS AQ conferences, giving them added incentive to buttress their current formation with up an coming DI-AA teams like NDSU. An invite from the Mountain West Conference would be mana from Heaven for NDSU, and there is absolutely positively NO reason why the NDSU Athletic Department should not be calling Craig Thompson ever. single. day. and serenading him with Peter Frampton songs.



Get your shit together Gene Taylor and work on your falsetto dammit!!!


If, however, the MWC bid couldn’t materialize (The appear to be incredibly satisfied with their current 12 team construction) the MAC could be a legitimate backup plan for the Bison. Again, the fit, albeit stretched, is there geographically, and by extension culturally (the MAC being somewhat of a Big 10 Junior). NDSU has no problem playing teams as far east as Ohio, and the stretch to Massachusettes and New York can’t be any more painful than the streches to Texas or California would be. NDSU would be right at home in the MAC’s West division, and, big surprise, they could dominate this conference competitively.

MAC 103113

Noone in this conference is really even that close to NDSU this year. Even BCS hopeful (and repeat challenger in that department) Northern Iowa likely wouldn’t stand up to NDSU in this particular year. Again, I feel like there isn’t much to say with this conference in terms of convincing people of its viability. The only problem anyone could have would be the occasional trips to MA and NY, but those likely would only happen once every 4 years. Seriously. There is no reason for NDSU not to fit in the MAC. So if Mr. Thompson isn’t a fan of Frampton maybe we could hit the MAC maybe we can just direct our love toward the MAC? C’mon Jon Steinbrecher… you know we’d be good to you…!

Just give us a chance!