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The Dakota Marker: The rivalry trophy that’s almost as hard to win as the national championship itself

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South Dakota State is good enough to beat North Dakota State, which remains the FCS dynasty regardless.

USA Today Sports

This feat is most associated with 2017 Auburn:

  • Beat your biggest rival, who’s also the reigning dynasty.
  • Finish yet another top-10 season outside the title game.
  • Watch as your rival rebounds to win yet another championship.

But nobody’s mastered this euphoria-devastation double-dip more than South Dakota State, the biggest rival to North Dakota State and consistently FCS’ biggest bridesmaid.

Forget the FCS championship, which NDSU has won six times in seven years. Let’s talk about the Dakota Marker.

This is the best rivalry in FCS right now. Forget Harvard and Yale, whose players have enough going for them that they don’t need the extra validation here, and other great rivalries that don’t have the national impact of Jackrabbits-Bison.

The Marker isn’t that old. The schools started playing for it in 2004. It’s a replica of one of the old quartzite pylons that they used when they were splitting the Dakota Territory into two states in the late 19th century:

The rivalry goes way back. The teams have been playing since 1903, when NDSU was still called the North Dakota Agricultural College. The series is 60-42-5 in NDSU’s favor.

It gained steam when the two teams made the DI leap in 2004, briefly leaving behind other rivals (North Dakota for NDSU, South Dakota for SDSU) with whom they’d shared long, contentious histories.

When your rival is as good as NDSU, you have to reconcile with that some way or another. At SDSU, they try to catch up while staying calm.

NDSU won five Division II national titles between 1983 and 1990. The Bison were setting a standard even before they ripped off all these FCS titles.

“They’ve always been the benchmark,” says Mark Ovenden, the sports director at KDLT in Sioux Falls, who’s been broadcasting in South Dakota for 40 years. “They’ve always been the measuring stick for a program, and to be honest, they are where other schools wanna be, and that includes South Dakota State.”

“There’s still a little bit of respect,” says John Roby, a lawyer in Watertown, South Dakota, who helps run SDSUfans.com. “I think there’s some honest respect between certainly the programs and the coaching staffs. I think there’s a little bit of respect, too, among the fanbases. It’s not a rivalry like some, where there’s real hatred.”

Making it easier to stay enthusiastic about their own team, Jackrabbits fans have a couple of recent wins against the reigning power.

In 2016, the Jacks did what almost nobody does: beat the Bison at the Fargodome. They did it on a last-minute pass:

NDSU

At that point, the Bison had won five consecutive national titles. NDSU had also won eight in a row against SDSU, going back to 2009. Look at the extreme glee on the Jacks’ faces as they paraded their newly re-won Marker around NDSU’s turf:

In 2017, the Jackrabbits again beat NDSU, this time in Brookings. This was a more comfortable win, 33-21, with the Jackrabbits forcing five turnovers to beat then-No. 2 NDSU. This time, they got to march that large hunk of mass around their field:

“We’re winning some of those games now,” Roby says. “They’re certainly still the dominant program, but I like to think that we’re looking at ‘em and we’re kinda catching ‘em.”

Still, NDSU’s stayed ahead with unprecedented playoff success.

After the 2016 game, NDSU got vengeance by destroying SDSU in the playoffs, 36-10. The lone bright spot for the Jacks was this hilarious trick play that went for a TD (and was actually a little revenge for NDSU using this same gadget against SDSU four years earlier):

The Bison lost to James Madison in a national semifinal a week later, giving SDSU fans a measure of solace.

The post-Marker events of 2017 were even worse. SDSU got crushed by James Madison in a national semifinal. NDSU, from another quadrant of the bracket, ran the table and did this for the sixth time in seven years:

NCAA Football: DI Football Championship Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Making it even bitterer for SDSU fans, the only year that didn’t include an NDSU national title featured the Bison beating the Jacks in the playoffs.

The Jackrabbits have been so good that it’s not even some cheap trick for them to hold their heads high just for beating NDSU in the regular season.

NDSU’s success has obscured just how good SDSU has been. The Jacks’ recent FCS resume:

  • 2009: Playoffs
  • 2012: Playoffs second round
  • 2013: Playoffs second round
  • 2014: Playoffs second round
  • 2015: Playoffs
  • 2016: Missouri Valley champions, playoffs quarterfinals
  • 2017: Playoffs semifinals

They’ve finished the last two years No. 6 and No. 4 in postseason polls. Coach John Stiegelmeier has built a national power. It’s not the Jacks’ fault their rise has coincided with NDSU becoming Voltron.

“I think the South Dakota State fans would love to have the kind of success that North Dakota State has, and they’re very close,” Ovenden says. “I’m talking about the football program. I think John Stiegelmeier’s done a phenomenal job with that team. They’ve been a better team in Division I than they were in Division II, which is crazy.”

SDSU has reason to be happy with what it has now, even as it strives for more.

Two wins against NDSU in two years is almost as hard as winning a FCS title, anyway.

Just ask these 85-scholarship teams:

That’s why SDSU is proud to own the second most difficult-to-win trophy in all of FCS.

“If we can’t win things, I don’t mind if North Dakota State does,” Roby says. “I just wish we’d kick the snot out of ‘em.”