Arizona goes from playing a team picked to finish near the bottom of the SEC West Division to one that’s the favorite to claim another national championship, albeit at the FCS level.
North Dakota State (2-0) has won nine FCS titles since 2011, including last season, and also brings a 6-game win streak over FBS opponents with it to Tucson. The Bison, who last played such a matchup in 2016, haven’t lost to a team from the upper division since 2009.
As of Wednesday morning there is no line for this game, according to DraftKings Sportsbook, but Arizona does sit at +8000 to win the Pac-12. That’s the third-worst odds, behind Stanford (+20000) and Colorado (+50000).
To better understand the Bison—pronounced BY-ZUN, by the way—we reached out to Jared Miller of SB Nation’s Underdog Dynasty, which covers college football outside the power conferences. Here are his resilient answered to our rigid questions.
AZ Desert Swarm: North Dakota State comes to Tucson riding a 10-game win streak, which includes the FCS title game in January, and has won its first two games this season by a combined score of 99-17. How does this squad compare to the 2021 version that won the program’s ninth national championship in the past 11 years?
Jared Miller: “So far this season’s unit is looking just as good, if not better, than last year’s team. Of course we are only two games in and those two games for NDSU are blowouts over lesser, non-conference teams so you can’t put a ton of stock into things just yet. That being said, there really never is any “drop off” with this team from year to year. It’s considered a down year if the Bison lose more than a game. Of all the dominant NDSU teams we’ve seen over the last decade, I wouldn’t say this year’s bunch is quite the strongest of all but compared to last year’s team I think they stack up. The running game is still dominant, the offensive line is stout as ever and the defense has looked really good so far this season.”
The Bison released a video last week hyping its exploitation of the A-gap with its run game. What makes their ground attack so potent, and does it have any flaws?
“Hunter Luepke. I say that as a short answer to what makes their ground attack so potent because he is a tried-and-true Bison runner. He’s a physical, big, punishing fullback that is everything this program historically likes in their backfield. His vision for gaps in the running lanes is excellent and he has the strength to break off some monster runs. I honestly don’t know if I can say there’s any glaring weakness in their ground game right now. The depth of their rushers is truly something else. No player on the team yet has ran for over 100 yards on the season but that’s because 11 different guys have all essentially split reps as carriers. Luepke leads the charge but there’s several more rushers that can hurt you. But what truly makes the ground game one of the best in the country is the offensive line. It all starts and ends there and NDSU’s big boys are renowned as some of the best the FCS has to offer. These guys play together a lot and that experience with each other is huge.”
Quarterback Cam Miller has only had to throw the ball 21 times in two games, but that’s produced four touchdowns. Is he capable of taking on a bigger load if NDSU falls behind, and does he have adequate weapons to throw to?
“While it is true that NDSU is not used to playing a ‘catch-up’ style game, I think it would be unfair to say Cam Miller isn’t able to take on that bigger passing load if need be. He certainly has viable weapons to throw to. Tight end Noah Gindorff is a bruiser and, just because he only has three catches so far this year, doesn’t mean he should be taken lightly. For his career he has 38 catches for 448 yards and 12 touchdowns. Luepke, who I mentioned before, isn’t just a hard-nose runner. He’s been known to catch passes too. He’s hauled in six TDs in his time with the Bison. There’s options in the passing game for sure. The one wrinkle in this year’s offense is that this is solely Cam Miller’s show. Last year he split reps with Quincy Patterson, who is now gone, but even with that two-QB offense, Miller was the one that saw the most passing plays. He’s certainly able to put a game on his shoulders and produce from a passer’s standpoint even if that’s not necessarily what he’s used to doing.”
NDSU had to replace six starters in the front seven, but the early results look promising. What are the strengths of the defense, and who are the most impactful players?
“One thing to know about NDSU is that the revolving door of players never really seems to affect things. The team definitely did lose some big names on the front seven but this year’s bunch isn’t missing a beat. Size and agility is always their strength. Senior DE Spencer Waege is one to keep an eye on here. He’s actually not the biggest guy, weighing in at 282 lbs. but standing at 6-foot-5 the kid can move. Already this season he’s gotten two of the team’s six sacks and a forced fumble. He’s unquestionably one of the veteran presences in the trenches as is fellow senior Jake Kava. Those are two names to know for this weekend and you can bet that Arizona has been studying the film on them this week.”
The Bison haven’t lost more than two games in a season in more than a decade, have beaten six straight FBS opponents and have sent their last two head coaches to FBS jobs. Why hasn’t this program moved up from FCS?
“There’s a lot that goes into that question and believe me, it’s an age-old one as far as the FCS is concerned. Fans cry for it every year but the truth is, there’s more to it than just the wins and losses. First and foremost, NDSU would need to receive an official invite to an FBS conference for a move up to even be a possibility. As of now they have not received one. Even if they did, it would have to make sense for the program to accept one. The first hurdle is geography and right now the only two conferences that seem viable for them would be the MAC or the Mountain West. The Pac-12 will probably not be sending out any FCS invites soon, even to a program like North Dakota State. Let’s say they did get a call from the Mountain West, though, for example; NDSU would be a physical outlier and travel isn’t cheap. The financials say annual trips coming/going to Hawaii, Fresno State, San Diego State, etc. aren’t worth it. Finally, at the end of the day, the Bison likely aren’t going to want to give up the good thing they have going in the FCS where playoff trips are all but guaranteed and national titles are right there for the taking. Why give that up when the best option in the FBS is likely a mid-tier bowl game at best? They’re the cream of the crop right now and they know not to bite the hand that feeds them.”
Prediction time. Does NDSU take out another FBS team, or does Arizona avoid losing to FCS opponents in consecutive seasons? Give us a score pick.
“It’s really hard for me to pick against the Bison here for several reasons. Of course Arizona lost to an FCS school last year in a big upset, so that doesn’t instill a lot of confidence and neither does the Wildcats’ recent track record. Going 1-11 in 2021 leaves a lot of uncertainty. But even more than that, NDSU just has a history of doing this. In 2016 the program went into Iowa and took down a ranked Hawkeyes team. As of my writing this, the Wildcats are given a 57.2 percent chance of winning this game and normally FBS teams have much better odds than that. I do think the game will be close and that Arizona will probably give NDSU some of the most trouble it may see all year but in the end I’m going with the Bison 28-27.”
Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.