IOWA CITY, Iowa — Blanket statements often are full of hyperbole, but there’s never been a more compelling FBS vs. FCS matchup than Iowa vs. North Dakota State.
No. 13 Iowa (2-0) won the Big Ten West Division title last year after an unbeaten regular season and is the divisional favorite once again. North Dakota State (2-0), the top-ranked FCS team, has won five consecutive FCS national titles and beaten five consecutive FBS opponents. The Bison beat defending Big 12 champion Kansas State in 2013, plus chewed up Minnesota (2011) and Iowa State (2014) in recent years.
“Certainly you look at them, they’re a model program,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “They’ve had amazing success.”
Here are five other things to know about Saturday’s game.
1. FCS debate
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany ushered through a philosophy of ending nonconference games against FCS opponents. The strategy is sound; the league wants its teams to play competitive games against schools that have the same number of scholarships. Of course, the television networks want the same thing. But the reality is more murky, as the Iowa-North Dakota State matchup Saturday attests.
FCS teams Illinois State and Northern Iowa already have beaten Power 5 teams this year. North Dakota State has won its last five games against FBS competition. South Dakota beat Minnesota in 2010. South Dakota State has competed well against several top-tier foes. In many cases, those FCS teams make better (and cheaper) opponents than teams from the MAC or Sun Belt. Iowa paid Miami of Ohio $1 million in the opener and North Dakota State just a $500,000 guarantee. Plus, MAC teams are scattered throughout Michigan, Ohio and Indiana. The better FCS squads are in Illinois, Iowa and the Dakotas. Geography matters.
“The reality is that North Dakota State not only can play really well against FBS teams, they have played well,” Ferentz said. “Just look at them on film. They’re a first-class team. I’d say the same thing about Illinois State, at least the team we played last year and prepared for. We’re getting ready for them that year, we’re looking at the championship game where they played North Dakota State in that game. You’re looking at teams that are really good football teams.
“I’m just guessing there’s good reason for the decisions we made as a conference.”
Iowa plays just one more FCS opponent on an upcoming schedule: Northern Iowa in 2018. Delany’s non-FCS edict was right on, but the Missouri Valley Football Conference — the FCS’ version of the SEC — should be exempted.
2. NFL-caliber middle linebackers
Bison senior Nick DeLuca was the only FCS player named to the Butkus Award preseason watch list. DeLuca suffered a separated shoulder and missed the second half of the opener but returned last week against Eastern Washington to record a game-high 15 tackles and returned an interception 40 yards for a touchdown. He was named the Missouri Valley Football Conference defensive player of the week.
Iowa counterpart Josey Jewell, also a Butkus Award candidate, missed most of the opener after a targeting ejection. Jewell, a junior, returned to lead the Hawkeyes with nine tackles on Saturday. Jewell was a second-team all-Big Ten selection last year.
3. Drawn and quarterbacked
Iowa and North Dakota State are a combined 25-2 in games started by their current quarterbacks. Iowa senior C.J. Beathard has won all 15 regular-season starts with his only losses coming in the Big Ten championship game and Rose Bowl. North Dakota State sophomore Easton Stick was 8-0 last year as a starter while Carson Wentz was injured. Both quarterbacks are 2-0 this year as starters.
Beathard has 427 passing yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions this season. Stick has passed for 451 yards, four scores and one interception. Both players have a rushing touchdown.
4. Local connections
Iowa athletics director Gary Barta quarterbacked North Dakota State to the 1986 Division II national title and scored a touchdown in the championship game. Iowa deputy athletics director Gene Taylor guided the Bison athletics department from 2001 through 2014.
North Dakota State coach Chris Klieman was raised in Waterloo and played at Northern Iowa. He later worked as an assistant at Northern Iowa in two different stints (1991-1993, 2006-2010) before heading to North Dakota State. Klieman became the Bison head coach in 2014.
Bison leading rusher Lance Dunn played high school football at Waterloo (Iowa) West. Sioux City cornerback Ross Godfrey and North Liberty linebacker Jake Brinkman also play for the Bison.
5. Northern exposure
Rarely do upper-level/lower-level matchups generate national interest, but this game airs to a national audience on ESPN2 (noon ET Saturday) at Kinnick Stadium. While every Iowa game is televised, the Bison appear on national television only a handful of times each year. Since 2011, 15 other Bison games have appeared on the ESPN family of networks and two others were aired by Fox Sports 1.
Beth Mowins, Anthony Becht and Rocky Boiman call the action this Saturday.