This weekend in college sports gives us a David and Goliath clash that could define an entire season. The NCAA tournament is also happening.
While the nation's eyes are focused on the hardwood, one of the biggest games of the FCS spring season goes down Saturday afternoon at the Fargodome, where upstart North Dakota could drive a stake through the heart of three-time defending national champions North Dakota State.
The long-awaited reunion of North Dakota's major universities would be a massive event in the state regardless of the circumstances. UND and NDSU played annually from 1894 through 2003, until North Dakota State graduated to the FCS and North Dakota remained in Division II. The Bison and Fighting Hawks played just twice in their 17 years apart, both NDSU blowouts, in 2015 and 2019.
The 2020 (and now 2020-21) season was to be the great reunion, North Dakota's first as a fellow Missouri Valley Football Conference member. The Fighting Hawks transitioned to the FCS in 2012 and, after a slow start, have done well for themselves. Bubba Schweigert's team left the Big Sky for independence in 2018, posting a 6-5 mark in '18, then a 7-5 finish with a playoff appearance in 2019. North Dakota has been a nice story, to be sure, but North Dakota State is a national powerhouse, winner of eight of the last nine national titles. Surely, the Great Reunion game of the 2020-21 season would play out similar to the 2019 game, a 38-7 Bison win.
Then the spring season started.
After beginning the season unranked, North Dakota has skyrocketed to No. 2 in the latest STATS FCS poll. Schweigert's Hawks have knocked off three ranked teams in their four games to date -- a 44-21 blowout of then-No. 24 Southern Illinois to open the year, a 28-17 win over No. 3 South Dakota State, then a 21-10 takedown of No. 20 South Dakota. They've yet to play a game within single digits this year.
And then there's North Dakota State, which hasn't been bad by any stretch of the imagination but, thus far, is pretty far from the NORTH DAKOTA STATE to which we're accustomed. The Bison were blown out by Southern Illinois, the same team UND beat by 23 just a week prior, and struggled to beat winless Illinois State last week. Much of those struggles are due to inconsistent quarterback play -- starter Zeb Noland went just 6-of-13 for 72 yards with two interceptions on Saturday and was replaced by true freshman Cam Miller. For the year, Noland is hitting 54.3 percent of his throws for just 6.3 yards per attempt with more interceptions than touchdowns.
This brings us to Saturday's game, an opportunity for upstart North Dakota (if only temporarily) close the gap with the big, bad bully of FCS, who also happens to be their neighbor and rival. Imagine if UAB joined the SEC and immediately beat Alabama. That's something of the scale we're working with here.
There are also national implications at play here. Remember, this season's playoff bracket has just 16 spots, and only four at-large berths. A loss Saturday, at home -- NDSU has won 31 straight home games, the fourth longest streak in FCS history -- would drop North Dakota State to 4-2 overall and 3-2 in MVFC play. With losses to UND and SIU, a 10th straight conference title would be out the window, and a ninth national title in 10 seasons would be, if not completely dead, then on serious life support. The Bison would be among the glut of teams clawing for those last four life rafts; I'd still like their chances to get one, but it'd be far from a guarantee.
If -- and, I must stress, this is the iffiest of all ifs -- North Dakota State loses, there will also be another reality to consider. This current Bison edition might now (and I'm about to wash my mouth out with soap just for suggesting this) might... not.... be that good? I know, I know. This is North Dakota State we're talking about, it's equally likely the Bison rip through the remainder of their schedule undefeated and unchallenged en route to yet another title as it is they lose on Saturday.
If any program is due for a rebuilding season, it's this one. Especially since Trey Lance is preparing to become a first round draft pick instead of playing quarterback for North Dakota State, as he would've been in a regular fall season.
But the fact that we're even having this conversation -- of North Dakota, unranked in preseason, possibly knocking off North Dakota State and surging toward a No. 1 ranking; of NDSU going from hunted to humbled -- is a monumental moment in FCS history all on its own.
It's a good thing there's nothing else going on in college sports this weekend.