IOWA CITY, Iowa — North Dakota State players mobbed one another at Kinnick Stadium’s 50-yard line, seconds after the clock ticked past zero.
Coach Chris Klieman choked up in a postgame interview, then joined his crew in Kinnick Stadium’s northeast end zone in a raucous celebration. With a 37-yard field goal on the game’s final play, the Bison upset No. 13 Iowa 23-21 on Saturday.
There was nothing fluky about the win. This wasn’t one of those games where a few turnovers and a trick play turn into an epic upset. The five-time FCS champion Bison traded punches with the bigger, supposedly more physical Hawkeyes for three quarters before winning the fight in the fourth.
This wasn’t a cruiserweight stopping a heavyweight. If anything, it was a No. 12 beating a No. 5 in an NCAA tournament, bracket-busting first-round game.
Exciting matchups like Saturday’s game are coming to an end. In 2015, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany told reporters the league no longer will schedule games against FCS opponents. His reasoning was the uneven playing field of 85 scholarships against 63. Television wants compelling matchups, and FBS-FCS games often are mismatches.
That is often true — for instance, Clemson beat South Carolina State 59-0 Saturday and led 45-0 at halftime — but the gap has narrowed between top FCS programs and high-caliber FBS schools. North Dakota State has won its last six games against Power 5 competition. Not only does that include Saturday’s game against 2015 Rose Bowl participant Iowa, but in 2013 the Bison beat defending Big 12 champion Kansas State. In Week 2, FCS member Illinois State upset Northwestern. Northern Iowa did the same to Iowa State in its season opener.
In 2009, two blocked field goal attempts on the game’s final two plays prevented Northern Iowa from beating Iowa at Kinnick Stadium. The Hawkeyes finished 11-2 and won the Orange Bowl. In 2012, Northern Iowa lost 26-21 at Wisconsin, which eventually won the Big Ten championship. Youngstown State beat Pittsburgh by two touchdowns in 2012. South Dakota State scored 41 points at TCU in this year’s opener.
Schools from the Missouri Valley Football Conference have shown an ability to compete against major programs. They bring fans, as the about 10,000 Bison fans in Kinnick Stadium can attest. So why has the Big Ten banned future contests against the FCS version of the SEC?
“I’m behind the Big Ten’s decision. I was a part of the discussion,” Iowa athletic director Gary Barta said. “One of the reasons why we’re doing this is to try and strengthen our schedule. But just ask ESPN, why have they decided to have GameDay at NDSU two different times? It’s because they’re an exception. So I certainly would be comfortable talking about at some point having exception. But the policy is not going to change.”
The Big Ten has a long-standing relationship with Mid-American Conference schools. This year, Big Ten schools scheduled seven games against the MAC and eight against FCS opponents. Iowa played one of each this year with guarantees for both teams. The opener against Miami of Ohio cost Iowa $1 million. The university paid North Dakota State $500,000.
When Delany’s edict takes root, the pool of available opponents will become more shallow, which will send the guarantee costs soaring.
MAC schools primarily are located in Ohio, Michigan and Indiana. That makes travel cost-effective for MAC schools and enables the Big Ten’s eastern institutions come across as good neighbors. But in the Big Ten’s western region, there’s only one MAC school (Northern Illinois). There are similar relationships and geography between Valley schools and the western Big Ten universities. Fans of Valley schools will travel to Big Ten West Division opponents, while MAC schools’ fans often will not.
Iowa administrators, in particular, hear from state leaders about helping Northern Iowa financially. Games between the Hawkeyes and Panthers are not only competitive, they also provide revenue for a smaller Regents institution and keep political forces at bay.
The most unfortunate byproduct of the Big Ten’s phase-out of FCS opponents is it robs those schools of an experience like North Dakota State enjoyed on Saturday. The Bison won at a storied Power 5 program. That memory is priceless, even for a program that has won five consecutive FCS titles.
“I think it’s great for college football,” Klieman said. “I don’t care what the end result is. It’s great for Illinois State to go to Northwestern or Northern Iowa to go to Iowa or Indiana State to go to Minnesota. Those things are so valuable from a finance part as starters to be able to generate revenue for your program and most importantly have your fan base and have your families be able to go to those games. That’s what I’m going to miss. That’s the thing that gets lost a little bit.”
In the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, we get these stories every year like when Northern Iowa knocked out top-seeded Kansas in 2010. It’s a shame competitive FCS football programs won’t have the same opportunity against Big Ten schools.