North Dakota State, the three-time defending FCS champion, is hosting Central Arkansas on Saturday — the Bison's only game this fall and generally considered to be an NFL audition for quarterback Trey Lance.
Lance, the first freshman to win the Walter Payton Award, which honors the FCS offensive player of the year, is eligible for the 2021 draft because he's a third-year sophomore. His athleticism, size, and multidimensional skill set have led to first-round projections, so Saturday's game will be his last in a Bison uniform if he makes an early leap to the NFL.
“Everything is all hypotheticals at this point, so I'll let (the media) talk about the NFL and everything like that,” Lance said. “That's not my job right now, my job right now is to lean on my teammates and win another game here at North Dakota State.”
The two programs will meet for the first time. Top-ranked North Dakota State, on an FCS-record 37-game winning streak, was 137-13 with eight national titles during the last decade. Central Arkansas (2-1), which was 11th in the Athlon FCS Preseason Top 25, has the largest fall schedule in the subdivision (10 games) and won't play in the spring season.
Central Arkansas at North Dakota State
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 3 at 3 p.m. ET
TV: NBC North Dakota, ESPN+
Line: North Dakota State -23
When Central Arkansas Has the Ball
The Southland Conference’s preseason favorite is coming off a mere 177-yard performance against Missouri State, the Bears’ Division I low (since 2006) and hardly the way to prep for North Dakota State’s vaunted defense. Junior quarterback Breylin Smith has thrown at least one interception in each game this season and in 12 of the Bears’ last 14 games, so he needs to find top wide receivers Lujuan Winningham and Tyler Hudson without making costly errors. He’s been sacked seven times – a problem that dates to last season.
After two solid performances, the rushing attack, which features running backs Kierre Crossley and Cameron Myers, was sluggish against Missouri State. The Bears' ability to sustain drives would keep Bison pass rushers off Smith and provide him with more time to find receivers.
Place-kicker Hayden Ray was successful on 20 of his first 22 career field goal attempts, but he's missed three in a row over the last two games.
When North Dakota State Has the Ball
If there is offensive rust, it should come off quickly because the Bison boast an FBS-like offensive line (left tackle Dillon Radunz is a top-75 draft prospect) and an abundance of weapons surrounding Lance (3,886 total yards, 42 total touchdowns last season). The Bison ranked fourth in the FCS in rushing a year ago and have a deep stable of running backs returning, led by fifth-year senior Adam Cofield (813 rushing yards, 12 touchdown carries).
Even with the strong run game, head coach Matt Entz and offensive coordinator Tyler Roehl likely feel a responsibility to highlighting Lance as a passer and will try to showcase his development reading a defense as he locates wide receivers and tight ends. Junior wide receiver Christian Watson has breakaway speed and appears to be a future NFL player as well.
North Dakota State is the best program in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, let alone the FCS. Central Arkansas just struggled to beat an MVFC opponent (Missouri State) which finished last or second-to-last in each of the past six seasons. The Bears would have played in the Fargodome in last year's playoffs had they not lost to another MVFC member, Illinois State, in the second round.
Provided the Bison lineup is intact after COVID-19 testing, there's a decided difference in quality depth here.
Prediction: North Dakota State 41, Central Arkansas 17
— Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.
(Trey Lance photo courtesy of NDSU Athletics)