North Dakota State fans were treated to the school’s most entertaining non-conference schedule in the 121 years of Bison football last year. The season opened with a nationally televised game at the Fargodome against No. 7-ranked Charleston Southern (a 24-17 overtime victory for NDSU), took a week off, followed with a home matchup against high-flying No. 8 Eastern Washington (a 50-44 OT victory for NDSU) and then — the crown jewel — a contest at the Big Ten’s Iowa, the 13th-ranked team in Football Bowl Subdivision. The Bison beat the Hawkeyes 23-21 on a game-ending 37-yard field goal by Cam Pederson.
While delightful for Bison fans, particularly since their team beat Iowa, the schedule was a grind for NDSU. Fall camp started early because of the Week Zero game against Charleston Southern, the three opponents were high quality, two of the games went overtime and the Bison didn’t have any depth after losing so many players to graduation following a fifth straight national championship in 2015. Then it was on to the weekly pounding in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
It took a toll.
“When you play two overtime games as well as play the University of Iowa in that type of physical environment, absolutely it did,” Bison head coach Chris Klieman said Monday. “Plus we played with the same guys. Had we played the same schedule and were able to play with 15 more guys like we’re anticipating this year — no matter what the schedule is — it would’ve helped us.”
The game that particularly hurt was Iowa. The victory was one of the Bison’s biggest ever, but they paid a price. The NDSU offensive line was never quite the same after beating up — and taking a beating from — the Hawkeyes. Physically, the big boys up front never quite recovered. Yes, the Bison reached the playoff semifinals before losing at home to eventual champion James Madison, but the feeling was there throughout much of the conference season and the playoffs that NDSU didn’t have that extra gear it exhibited in past seasons. Too many teams hung around too long. It just seemed the Bison were running out of gas near the finish line.
That’s why this season’s non-conference schedule, while 67 percent stultifying, could be viewed as an opportunity. The Bison open at home Saturday against Mississippi Valley State, ranked 252nd out of 254 NCAA Division I football teams, according to USA Today computer rankings. The Delta Devils might be the worst DI opponent NDSU has played since leaving Division II 14 years ago. Week 2 will be a legitimate test against a talented and entertaining opponent in Eastern Washington. And it’ll be on the road. The game against the Eagles could be huge in determining playoff seeding at the end of the year. After an off-week, NDSU wraps up the non-conference schedule against lowly Robert Morris, rated 235th in the USA Today rankings. The Colonials were picked to finish last in the weak Northeast Conference.
From best non-conference schedule ever, to the worst. The two home games for which Bison fans will pay full price will be decided by halftime, with the combined score likely to be in the 100-20 range in favor of NDSU. They are going to be ugly.
But they’ll also allow Bison starters to rest for the second half of each game and, as Klieman referenced, give backups a chance to get game action. Players that might have a minor injury, who would’ve been compelled to play against stiffer competition, might sit out against Mississippi Valley State or Robert Morris to get healthier.
The Bison should enter the Missouri Valley season as fresh as could be expected. One difficult game sandwiched between two cupcakes and no FBS game. As brutal as the early games were in 2016, they are as favorable in 2017.
“I’m not really into what our schedule was or what our schedule is,” Klieman said. “I know what’s in front of us and we have to improve as a football team and that starts with our offensive and defensive lines.”
If this season ends with the Bison’s sixth trip to Frisco, Texas, in seven years for the FCS championship game, some of the credit will have to go to their non-conference schedule.