If North Dakota’s 2019 season has had an all-too-familiar feel to it, that’s because it’s followed an eerily similar script as two previous UND campaigns of the last five years.
All three seasons featured signature wins, with 2015’s victory at Wyoming, 2018’s success at No. 5 Sam Houston State and 2019’s home defeat of No. 9 Montana State all earning a special spot in UND lore. Ironically, all three seasons also contained one-score losses to Weber State, as well as head-shaking defeats to unranked Idaho State teams.
While certain other aspects of the 2015, 2018 and 2019 seasons are indeed different, the other obvious similarity in each of those years is the narrative entering the final campaign’s game. Case in point:
2015: UND entered the final week of the regular season with a 6-4 record and the assumption that a win would be enough to earn a berth in the FCS playoffs. The Fighting Hawks would proceed to thump a four-win Cal Poly side 45-21 in San Luis Obispo…only to be inconceivably left out of the postseason in favor of 6-5 Western Illinois. (Note: Time hasn’t healed these wounds. Don’t bring up 2015 in the company of UND football fans.)
2018: UND entered the final week of the regular season with a 6-4 record and the assumption that a win would be enough to earn a berth in the FCS playoffs. Unlike 2015, however, the Fighting Hawks could never get any traction in Flagstaff, falling 31-16 to a three-win Northern Arizona team in Jerome Souers’ final game as the Lumberjacks’ head coach. (…You might not want to bring up 2018, either.)
2019: Once again, UND enters the final week of the regular season with a 6-4 record and the assumption that a win would be enough to earn a berth in the FCS playoffs. Once again, they’re playing a team with a losing record – 3-8 Southern Utah – only this time, they’ll be in the Alerus Center, where they boast a perfect 5-0 record this year.
While the end result of Saturday’s clash with the Thunderbirds (1 PM CT, MidcoSN 2) is yet to be determined, we also don’t know with certainty what might happen in the aftermath. One thing we do know: if it's a North Dakota defeat, the season would end as the final buzzer sounds, just as it did in 2018.
The real question of the moment, however, lies in what happens should UND win. Will the FCS selection committee – which will announce their findings on Sunday, November 24 at 11:30 AM CT on ESPNU – put North Dakota in the playoff field of 24? Or will this be 2015 all over again? Let’s lay out the main talking points in regard to UND’s playoff chances, beginning with their biggest pro.
Strength of Schedule
North Dakota entered the 2019 season boasting the toughest schedule in FCS, with six games set to be played against ranked teams and five in the STATS Media Poll’s preseason top ten.
The Fighting Hawks proceeded to go 3-3 against those ranked opponents, with their best win coming against current No. 8 Montana State. While some have argued that the schedule ultimately wasn’t as difficult as originally advertised now that Sam Houston State, Eastern Washington and UC Davis are no longer ranked, three of the initial six – NDSU, Montana State and Weber State – are locks for the playoffs, while the other three can still finish at or above .500.
Big Sky Boost
The three main consequences of being an FCS Independent are as follows:
- You don’t get the chance to earn an automatic bid to the playoffs.
- Your players don’t get league recognition on a weekly or yearly basis. (In short, no all-conference nods.)
- You don’t have a built-in conference schedule and have to piece it together one week at a time.
While the first two have been true for UND during this two-year Independent dalliance before completing the move to the Missouri Valley in 2020, the third has not been, thanks to their agreement with the Big Sky to maintain their place in the previously agreed-upon league schedule. This, of course, is a major reason why North Dakota’s strength of schedule has been so good and why their Independent status shouldn’t hurt them in the eyes of the playoff committee, especially as their games against other Big Sky school count in that conference’s league standings.
UND’s an Independent in name only. In every other respect, they’re a Big Sky team and should be treated as such. (Again, wins and losses by Big Sky schools to UND COUNT in the Big Sky standings. They’ve played a full Big Sky schedule this year. Call me crazy, but they’re still a Big Sky school until 2020.)
Good Wins, Quality Losses
It’s basically another strength of schedule argument here, but when the committee compares resumes, UND’s win over a top-10 Montana State team stands out. Not many bubble teams will have a win of that caliber, and that matters.
As an aside, that victory will look even better should the Bobcats beat No. 3 Montana in Bozeman this weekend – a win that would almost certainly lock up a first round bye for MSU. (In short, UND fans = Montana State fans this Saturday.)
UND’s other statement wins over UC Davis and Sam Houston don’t quite resonate as much now as they did at the time, but it’d be foolish to discount either, especially the victory over SHSU. A win against another competitive team from a conference the committee respects never hurts.
In the same breath, the lack of a "quality loss" that UND fans heard as an argument for their exclusion in 2015 can’t be used against them this time. Road defeats to top-ranked NDSU and current No. 6 Weber State don’t look bad on a resume, and while the aforementioned blowout loss to 3-8 is a bit of an eyesore, it’s the only blemish that stands out.
Bear in mind that FCS teams could only schedule 11 games 2018 vs 12 in 2019 – we’ll get to that discussion in a moment, by the way – but if you look at the bracket, three six-win teams earned spots in the field of 24 a year ago, while five seven-win teams made their way in.
Remember, even with their final week loss to NAU and a 6-5 record, UND was still listed as one of the “Last Three Out” by the selection committee. Six wins was almost enough then, and UND’s resume this year is much stronger by comparison.
With that said, every year is a completely different animal, and that brings us to…
11 Games vs 12
The decision to pass on the NCAA-approved 12-game regular season this year might be a sticking point for the selection committee. Should UND beat SUU Saturday, will they view a 7-4 record – with no sub-FCS wins on it, mind you – on equal terms as 7-5 teams? (Note: They should, but with all due respect to the FCS Selection Committee, these things haven’t always mattered regardless of what the public selection criteria says.)
Unfortunately, there isn’t much precedent to fall back on, as the last time the calendar allowed for a 12-game FCS schedule was in 2014. That year, only one at-large seven-win team made it: the 7-5 Indiana State Sycamores. (Shouts to Larry Bird.)
And while it’s true that a pair of 8-3 teams and a handful of 7-4 teams didn’t get in that year, neither did the likes of 8-4 Idaho State, 8-4 Charleston Southern and 8-4 Lamar, a trio from traditionally strong conferences. 2014 was a top-heavy year, with the best teams in the top conferences cruising to nine-or-10-win seasons and making it awfully difficult for anyone with less than eight wins to have a shot.
Thankfully for UND fans, 2019 is much more like the parity-rich 2018 campaign. There aren’t nearly as many eight-or nine win teams as the season shifts to the final weekend of the campaign, meaning UND’s (potential) 7-4 record will look more appealing to the committee than it might have six seasons ago.
In the end, everything you just read won’t matter if North Dakota doesn’t win on Saturday. A loss to Southern Utah, and the dream of a second FCS postseason berth in the last four years is extinguished.
But while that’s what happened last year in the same situation, something tells me this Fighting Hawks team is different.
Can Bubba Schweigert’s resilient bunch learn from the disappointment of 2018 by finishing the campaign on a high and forcing the committee’s hand as they did five seasons ago? And what’s more, will it be enough to reach the postseason?
In this year of déjà vu, let’s hope that history doesn’t repeat itself this time around.