Maintaining the high standard of excellence in the North Dakota State carries both a responsibility and pressure, yet the Bison thrive off the challenge.
Come the day after their record run of FCS championships ended in the 2016 playoff semifinals, they were already pointing toward redeeming themselves – as if that was really needed in a decade of dominance.
Well, the Bison did just that this season, coming back to beat James Madison, 17-13, this past Saturday to win their sixth FCS championship in seven years, which tied Georgia Southern for the most in the 40-year history of the playoffs. Three of the titles have come under head coach Chris Klieman.
“It's almost a good problem to have,” All-America senior linebacker Nick DeLuca said of the legacy, “but it's an expectation to get back to this game and to get back to the national championship. So we take that on as a responsibility, and it's something that we have set as a goal every year. So we're really excited we were able to get it done this year.”
Here is the season-ending Athlon FCS Power Poll:
1. North Dakota State
(14-1, 7-1 Missouri Valley)
Previous Ranking: 2
Season-Ending Result: 17-13 win over James Madison in FCS championship game
Of Note: Junior quarterback Easton Stick was named the most outstanding player in the national championship game. He will be one of 14 returning starters next season, when the Bison surely will be the preseason No. 1.
2. James Madison
(14-1, 8-0 CAA)
Previous Ranking: 1
Season-Ending Result: 17-13 loss to North Dakota State in FCS championship game
Of Note: While the Dukes’ 26-game winning streak ended in the title game, the senior class was the first in school history to make four straight FCS playoff appearances. They were 46-9 in the time, but 28-2 over the last two seasons under head coach Mike Houston.
3. South Dakota State
(11-3, 6-2 Missouri Valley)
Previous Ranking: 5
Season-Ending Result: 51-16 loss to James Madison in FCS semifinals
Of Note: The Jackrabbits reached the semifinals for the first time, although a 10-turnover meltdown at James Madison was a cruel parting shot. Wide receiver Jake Wieneke ended his career among the all-time FCS leaders with 288 receptions, 5,147 receiving yards and 59 touchdown receptions.
4. Weber State
(11-3, 7-1 Big Sky)
Previous Ranking: 10
Season-Ending Result: 31-28 loss to James Madison in FCS quarterfinals
Of Note: The Wildcats avenged their only bad loss by beating fellow Big Sky champ Southern Utah in the second round of the playoffs. Cornerback Taron Johnson was the conference’s defensive player of the year.
5. Central Arkansas
(10-2, 9-0 Southland)
Previous Ranking: 4
Season-Ending Result: 21-15 loss to New Hampshire in FCS second round
Of Note: Head coach Steve Campbell might have been distracted by the South Alabama job that he got less than a week after the Southland champ’s surprising playoff loss to UNH. Offensive coordinator Nathan Brown has since been promoted to the top job.
6. Sam Houston State
(12-2, 8-1 Southland)
Previous Ranking: 6
Season-Ending Result: 55-13 loss to North Dakota State in FCS semifinals
Of Note: In becoming the second two-time winner of the Walter Payton Award, quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe threw for 9,605 yards and 102 touchdowns over the last two seasons. Junior college transfer Mike Dare could very well to be his replacement next season.
(10-3, 7-1 Southern)
Previous Ranking: 8
Season-Ending Result: 42-10 loss to North Dakota State in FCS quarterfinals
Of Note: Head coach Mike Ayers retired after 30 seasons, 207 wins and five Southern Conference titles with the Terriers. They reached the quarterfinals in both of his final two campaigns.
8. Kennesaw State
(12-2, 5-0 Big South)
Previous Ranking: 17
Season-Ending Result: 34-27 loss to Sam Houston State in FCS quarterfinals
Of Note: While almost all aspects of the Owls’ first three seasons have been outstanding, the Big South title, 12 straight wins and two playoff wins were on another level this season.
9. North Carolina A&T
(12-0, 8-0 MEAC)
Previous Ranking: 11
Season-Ending Result: 21-14 win over Grambling State in Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl
Of Note: The Aggies were the first MEAC team to go undefeated, claiming a second Celebration Bowl and HBCU national title in the last three seasons.
10. Jacksonville State
(10-2, 8-0 Ohio Valley)
Previous Ranking: 3
Season-Ending Result: 17-7 loss to Kennesaw State in FCS second round
Of Note: The strength of the Gamecocks’ program is called into question after it lost at home in its initial playoff game for the third time in four years. Senior defensive end Darius Jackson claimed the Buck Buchanan Award.
11. Southern Utah
(9-3, 7-1 Big Sky)
Previous Ranking: 7
Season-Ending Result: 30-13 loss to Weber State in FCS second round
Of Note: Despite the disappointing playoff loss, the Thunderbirds secured the most wins in their Division I history.
12. Western Illinois
(8-4, 5-3 Missouri Valley)
Previous Ranking: 9
Season-Ending Result: 21-19 loss to Weber State in FCS first round
Of Note: The Leathernecks drew the strongest first-round matchup (Weber State). Senior linebacker Brett Taylor led the FCS with 162 tackles.
13. Northern Iowa
(8-5, 6-2 Missouri Valley)
Previous Ranking: 12
Season-Ending Result: 37-22 loss to South Dakota State in FCS second round
Of Note: After a strong rally to make the playoffs, the Panthers thumped Monmouth in the first round, but failed to win at South Dakota State a second time.
14. Stony Brook
(10-3, 7-1 CAA)
Previous Ranking: 14
Season-Ending Result: 26-7 loss to James Madison in FCS second round
Of Note: A much-improved offense, behind quarterback Joe Carbone, was the difference in the Seawolves’ breakout season in CAA Football.
15. New Hampshire
(9-5, 5-3 CAA)
Previous Ranking: 25
Season-Ending Result: 56-14 loss to South Dakota State in FCS quarterfinals
Of Note: Many people didn’t feel the Wildcats deserved a 14th straight playoff bid, but head coach Sean McDonnell’s squad won twice, including at No. 4 seed Central Arkansas.
16. South Dakota
(8-5, 4-4 Missouri Valley)
Previous Ranking: 15
Season-Ending Result: 54-42 loss to Sam Houston State in FCS second round
Of Note: Senior quarterback Chris Streveler was sensational all season, ending it with a FCS playoff-record 520 passing yards against Sam Houston.
(8-4, 6-2 Southern)
Previous Ranking: 13
Season-Ending Result: 28-17 loss to Kennesaw State in FCS first round
Of Note: The Bulldogs’ season began with a win over Kennesaw State and ended with a loss to the Owls. In between, head coach Chris Hatcher piloted his winningest season dating back three stops (Valdosta State).
18. Eastern Washington
(7-4, 6-2 Big Sky)
Previous Ranking: 18
Season-Ending Result: 59-33 win over Portland State in regular season
Of Note: Oh, the Big Sky power was not happy with being left out of the playoff field. The defense must improve in head coach Aaron Best’s second season.
(9-2, 7-2 Southland)
Previous Ranking: 19
Season-Ending Result: 13-3 win over Lamar in regular season
Of Note: The Cowboys were the toughest team to run against in the FCS – a mere 54.5 rushing yards per game at less than two years per carry.
(8-5, 6-2 Southern)
Previous Ranking: 20
Season-Ending Result: 28-10 loss to Wofford in FCS second round
Of Note: Head coach Clay Hendrix’s first season was superb, but the Paladins couldn’t get over the Wofford hurdle in season-opening and season-ending losses.
(7-4, 5-3 CAA)
Previous Ranking: 21
Season-Ending Result: 28-7 loss to Villanova in regular season
Of Note: While the Blue Hens’ playoff drought rose to seven seasons, they had to be thrilled by the direction they are headed in under head coach Danny Rocco.
22. Grambling State
(11-2, 7-0 SWAC)
Previous Ranking: 23
Season-Ending Result: 21-14 loss to North Carolina A&T in Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl
Of Note: Tigers coach Broderick Fobbs was named the SWAC’s coach of the year for the fourth straight season as he guided the Tigers to a second consecutive conference title.
(8-4, 6-2 CAA)
Previous Ranking: 16
Season-Ending Result: 28-27 loss to Furman in FCS first round
Of Note: The first half of head coach Curt Cignetti’s first season with the Phoenix included impressive wins, but they ended with three straight losses against ranked opponents.
24. Austin Peay
(8-4, 7-1 Ohio Valley)
Previous Ranking: 24
Season-Ending Result: 28-13 win over Eastern Illinois in regular season
Of Note: Behind Eddie Robinson Award-winning head coach Will Healy, the surprising Governors overcame a 29-game losing streak and losses in 46 of 47 to win eight of their final 10 games.
(9-1, 6-1 Ivy)
Previous Ranking: Unranked
Season-Ending Result: 24-3 win over Harvard in regular season
Of Note: The Bulldogs won their first Ivy League title since 2006 and were a one-point loss to Dartmouth away from a perfect record.
— 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.
(Photo courtesy NDSU Athletics)