North Dakota State is the five-time defending FCS national champion, and the Bison have done a number on FBS schools, too. They've won each of their last six against first-division teams, including four in the Power 5. They beat then-No. 13 Iowa Saturday, and it didn't feel like an upset.
The Bison play in the FCS' Missouri Valley Football Conference, and there's no reason to think they'll stampede out of there anytime soon. But we already know NDSU could hack it in the Big Ten West this year, because NDSU just held the division's 2015 champion and 2016 favorite to a measly 1.4 yards per carry.
NDSU would do fine in the right FBS situation, if it ever made the jump. Long-term, that'd probably mean the mid-major MAC or Mountain West. But how competitive could the Bison be over a half-decade or so in the lesser of the Big Ten's two divisions?
One rating says the Bison could compete, and maybe even win it. But this is just a starting point.
They're currently No. 54 in Jeff Sagarin's national ratings, which is one of the few computer ratings to grade all of Division I in one list, rather than just FBS. That'd be fourth in the Big Ten West, only behind Iowa (which they'd hold a tiebreaker win over already), Wisconsin, and Nebraska. They'd even be fifth in the East.
They've been even better in past full seasons, according to Sagarin's ratings (the Bison are likely dragged down so far this year, relatively, by two non-blowout wins against good FCS teams in Weeks 1 and 2):
|Year||NDSU's Sagarin rank||Sagarin rank among current Big Ten West teams|
The Big Ten West didn't exist yet in 2013, but if it had and had included NDSU, Sagarin thinks the Bison could've won it. The current West's best team that year was a 9-4 Wisconsin with four close losses and few major wins, while 2013's 15-0 NDSU won at Kansas State and is considered perhaps the best FCS team ever.
Now add improved recruiting to that. NDSU just beat Iowa with unrated recruits. What could it do with three-stars?
No one would mistake NDSU's recent signing classes for FBS-level good. The Bison generally sit between 120th and 150th nationally on the 247Sports Composite, which aggregates industry evaluations of recruits.
But there’s some confirmation bias in small-school rankings. When unranked players commit to Power 5 schools, they often get solid recruiting evaluations shortly thereafter, which makes sense. When unranked players commit to an FCS team, they might not get any evaluations at all. As recently as 2013, only one NDSU signee had any Composite ranking listed: two-star cornerback Tre Dempsey, a Florida native who’s since become a critical player on a national champion.
If NDSU suddenly became a Big Ten team, its recruiting would bounce significantly. Consider fellow FCS power Georgia Southern jumping to become the Sun Belt's top recruiter in 2016; now add Power 5 status to that. Even Purdue was able to sign the No. 80 class in the country last cycle, and Purdue is Purdue.
North Dakota, the state, produces no blue-chip talent at all. But neither does Iowa, and the Hawkeyes have managed plenty of good years. Nebraska and Wisconsin play in states with similarly low talent levels, albeit closer to hot areas. The Bison have gotten good players out of Minnesota and manage a few California, Florida, and Texas signees.
So the Bison could definitely compete long-term in the B1G West. Here's why they wouldn't be added any time soon, even if they tried.
NDSU doesn’t have Power 5 infrastructure, but it does have quite a fan base.
Almost 19,000 people attended each of the Bison’s first two home games this year. That’s a sellout in the Fargodome, their hockey arena-sized stadium.
The school only has about 15,000 students, and Fargo, N.D., doesn’t have many more than 100,000 people. It appears nowhere in Nielsen’s accounting of the top 200 media markets. That is the most glaring argument against ever adding it to the Big Ten, which added Maryland and Rutgers largely because of nearby populations.
But the Bison have quite a following. In more concrete terms, the Bison easily sold out their 4,000-ticket allotment for Saturday’s game at Kinnick Stadium, then packed in a few thousand more fans, by the looks and sounds of it. Season tickets sell out quickly. They've twice hosted College GameDay, and it was amazing both times.
The problem, of course, comes down to money.
This is where any practical application of the idea springs leaks.
From USA Today’s annual accounting of athletic department revenues, we know that the average Power 5 football program’s AD hauls in something between about $80 million and $120 million. The Big Ten average is about $108 million.
North Dakota State’s reported revenue in 2014-15 was $22.3 million. That’s not even half the annual intake of the "poorest" Power 5 school, Washington State, which brought in $54.1 million. It’s even farther behind the shallowest Big Ten school, Rutgers, which did $70.6 million.
However, that's not the whole story. If you add the Big Ten's $32.4 million 2014-15 payout to NDSU's total, it'd then only be $15.9 million behind Rutgers, and that's before adjusting for other potential revenue boosts such as increased donations and merchandise sales, better non-conference game contracts, and a bigger university brand.
Still, it’s difficult to imagine NDSU’s non-football sports carrying enough financial weight to show it'd make the Big Ten richer. Football-only membership (like what the Big 12 has batted around for BYU and Connecticut) is also probably not in the cards.
I picked the worst Big Ten West team I could think of (Purdue) and compared its most recent U.S. Education Department financials with NDSU’s, and the revenue gap was a bit smaller, just by scale. In 2014, NDSU reported $4.6 million in football-only revenue, while Purdue reported $17 million. That’s still a huge gap.
NDSU can pack its small stadium without much problem. But the smallest Big Ten venues seat around 50,000. That’s a huge revenue engine that NDSU simply doesn’t have right now. Getting a cut of a Power 5 television deal would help, but the league doesn’t pass out cuts of that pie for nothing.
This won't happen, barring a decades-long transformation.
But in the magical world where money doesn't matter and only playing good football does (or a college football world in which relegation exists), the Bison would get to compete.
For now, they’ll have to settle on being the best FCS team ever and whomping the Power 5 teams silly enough to schedule them. That’s still fun.
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