North Dakota State football exists in rarefied air, one of the all-time great team-sport dynasties in the vein of John Wooden's UCLA basketball teams of the 1960s and '70s, 21st century UConn basketball, and early-1980s New York Islanders hockey.
The Bison capped a perfect 2019 season by beating James Madison in an instant classic National Championship Game, winning the program's eighth title since 2011. Thirteen months have passed since that contest, and a new decade is upon us, but North Dakota State's historic prominence is poised to continue in a historic season.
Sunday's Missouri Valley Football Conference matchup with Youngstown State isn't technically the first game of the campaign; the Bison played Central Arkansas in October, something of a showcase game for NFL draft prospect quarterback Trey Lance. But the Penguins' visit to the Fargodome officially ushers in the unprecedented spring season.
Youngstown State at North Dakota State
Kickoff: Sunday, Feb. 21 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: North Dakota State -23
When Youngstown State Has the Ball
A generation before North Dakota State's rise to the pinnacle of FCS, Youngstown State was one of the standard-bearers for the former Div. I-AA. Jim Tressel coached the Penguins to four consecutive National Championship Games from 1991 through 1994 and won three. New Penguins coach Doug Phillips began his career as a grad assistant for the first two of those teams and reunited with Tressel at Ohio State in the 2000s.
Phillips worked alongside another former Tressel assistant, Luke Fickell, at Cincinnati, where he was before being tabbed to replace Bo Pelini at Youngstown State. Cincinnati featured a potent rushing attack in Phillips' time there, and at Youngstown State, he inherits a team that relied heavily on its ground game.
The Penguins' running-back rotation will look different than in 2019, replacing leading rushers Joe Alessi and Braxton Chapman. Christian Turner, who scored three touchdowns and averaged almost five yards per carry, is the top returning ball-carrier. Joe Craycraft and Mark Waid, the two quarterbacks vying for starting duties, are capable runners.
When North Dakota State Has the Ball
From the outset of Craig Bohl's wildly successful tenure at North Dakota State, the Bison featured a physically dominant offensive style with one great running back after another — Pat Paschall, DJ McNorton, Sam Ojuri — operating behind a beefy offensive line. That approach continued under Chris Klieman, and Matt Entz's team has the players to continue it into another decade. With Dillon Radunz off to the NFL, Cordell Volson anchors the front five, and talented options to take up the run-game mantle like Seth Wilson.
Lance's play at quarterback added a new dynamic, however. Predecessors Carson Wentz and Easton Stick showed mobility, but Lance was uncanny in his ability to scramble. Coupled with a virtually error-free command of the passing game, Lance was transcendent. He embarks on the NFL as the only freshman ever to win the Walter Payton Award, the FCS equivalent of the Heisman.
Iowa State transfer Zeb Noland stepping into the role with Lance headed to the league will be one of the storylines to follow during the FCS season.
No program embodies the concept of reloading-over-rebuilding quite like North Dakota State. The Bison have seen coaches leave for other jobs and players move onto the NFL, and yet they've missed not a single beat. With the shortened spring season and a quick turnaround to fall, how Entz chooses to approach playing time might mean a less dominant North Dakota State season than what we're accustomed to, but not an unsuccessful campaign.
While MVFC teams are responsible for the vast majority of the scant few North Dakota State losses of the past decade, Youngstown State is in an unenviable position for its first game under a new regime.
Prediction: North Dakota State 42, Youngstown State 14
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.