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If I may, a word about North Dakota State

North Dakota State v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

North Dakota State claimed another FBS victim this weekend with a 23-21 win over the Iowa Hawkeyes. The Bison have now defeated six consecutive FBS opponents, all on the road. NDSU’s streak stretches back to 2010, when the Bison defeated KU, 6-3, in Lawrence. Since then, NDSU has wins over Minnesota (2011), Colorado State (2012), K-State (2013), and Iowa State (2014) before yesterday’s win in Iowa City.

On a large group text message I occasionally get roped into, a Husker fan who married into an Iowa family noted the morose state of affairs among Hawkeyes after yesterday’s game. I self-effacingly remarked that there’s no shame in losing to NDSU. His reply is the basis for this post. In effect, he said ranked teams shouldn’t lose to NDSU, but it’s not as big a shame for teams like, say, Iowa State.

Let’s examine this claim.

Sagarin’s college football ratings system is both good and thorough, in that it includes both FBS and FCS programs. It’s the only respected college football ratings system that includes both subdivisions. Over the last five years, North Dakota State has the following final rankings by Sagarin:

2015: 36th
2014: 32nd
2013: 17th
2012: 35th
2011: 37th

During its ongoing national title streak, NDSU has never finished worse than 37th nationally. Perhaps its best team, the 2013 squad led by Brock Jensen that finished 15-0 with a road win over defending Big 12 champion K-State, was probably a top-20 team that season.

Ian Boyd has previously delved into Craig Bohl’s coaching philosophy to examine the underpinnings of NDSU’s success. This approach continues under Chris Klieman. I won’t go into great detail — read Ian’s post — but NDSU fills a void in the northern Great Plains. They took advantage of Minnesota’s disastrous years under Tim Brewster to plant a recruiting flag in that state that remains to this day. They also own in-state talent, mostly for offensive line, defensive line and fullbacks, and have branched out to places like Omaha, Kansas City, and Florida and California for skill-position talent. It’s easier to recruit to Fargo when you’re winning titles.

Going back to the claim, it’s clearly true that lower-rung Power Five schools like Iowa State should experience no great shame in losing to NDSU. Since 2011, the Cyclones have finished 43rd, 55th, 72nd, 105th and 67th in Sagarin’s ratings. Their best season, 2011, isn’t as good as NDSU’s worst over the same stretch.

But what about ranked teams? They should be favorites to beat NDSU, generally. But the difference isn’t so great that NDSU walks into each game with no realistic chance to compete. To give you an idea of comparable programs, here are the schools that finished on either side of NDSU over the last five years, again in Sagarin’s poll:

2015: Western Kentucky, Toledo
2014: Notre Dame, West Virginia
2013: Ohio State, Wisconsin
2012: Michigan State, Cincinnati
2011: Rutgers, Cal

Put it in that context, and it’s apparent that even ranked teams need to play well against North Dakota State to emerge victorious. Going strictly by labels and the scholarship restrictions in FCS, it’s easy to assume inferiority. But the former is meaningless and the latter is overcome by NDSU’s geographical location, unique success, and intelligent use of equivalency scholarships.