INDEPENDENCE - For Independence, the prep football season opener bore little resemblance to its winless 2016 campaign.
Even in defeat, a clear message was sent that there are brighter days ahead for the Mustangs.
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Now we come to the feature game on the September portion of Iowa’s football schedule.
It happens to be the program with the most-impressive college football story of the decade, and one of the most-impressive in the sport’s history. No one but North Dakota State has won five consecutive national-championships at any level of college football, and the Bison are going for No. 6 this year.
The numbers alone are mind-boggling. FCS is chock full o’ fine teams, but NDSU has won four straight games in a single-elimination playoff tournament five straight years.
There isn’t a single law in all the laws of averages that says even a dominant program would win 20 consecutive playoff games against sturdy competition. Yet, the Bison have.
Not only have they won, they have stampeded like, well, Bison. The average margin of victory in those 20 postseason contests is 20 points. Only one of NDSU’s five championship-game wins was decided by less than 11 points.
Since the start of the 2011 season, the Bison are 73-5. Four of those five defeats were by a field goal. The other was Northern Iowa’s 23-3 conquest of their Missouri Valley Football Conference rival in Cedar Falls two years ago.
Then note this: North Dakota State has won its last five games against FBS teams. All were played on the road, of course.
That streak began with a 6-3 win at Kansas in 2010. Then came a 37-24 win at Minnesota in ’11, a 22-7 victory at Colorado State in ’12, a 24-21 victory at Kansas State in ’13, and a 34-14 whomping of Iowa State in Ames two years ago.
Showing mercy to the bigger division, NDSU didn’t play an FBS team in 2015. But here it comes to Kinnick Stadium Saturday, without fear or anxiety.
How good is North Dakota State football? Last year, quarterback Carson Wentz missed eight games with a broken wrist. So he was replaced by redshirt freshman Easton Stick, who went 8-0 and got his team all the way through the FCS semifinals. He had 13 touchdown passes and just four interceptions.
Wentz returned for the FCS title game, and the Bison belted top-ranked Jacksonville State, 37-10. A few months later, Wentz was the No. 2 player taken in the NFL draft, and started for the Philadelphia Eagles in their season-opener. He threw his first NFL touchdown pass just over five minutes into his pro career.
Meanwhile, Stick has piloted this season’s top-ranked Bison to overtime triumphs over then-No. 6 Charleston Southern and then-No. 8 Eastern Washington. The latter opened this season with a win at Washington State.
Jeff Sagarin, whose computer ratings include all FBS and FCS teams and place a significant emphasis on strength-of-schedule, had NDSU 36th in his final 2015 rankings. That was higher than 93 FBS clubs, 33 of them from Power Five conferences, and nine from the Big Ten (Iowa was 22nd).
This may be the least of the last six Bison teams. They are 67th in Sagarin’s current ratings, which still puts them ahead of three of Iowa’s 2016 Big Ten opponents and the two teams the Hawkeyes have already played.
Why, ESPN’s College GameDay has been to Fargo three times since 2013. Iowa has only hosted the iconic pregame show twice, in 1996 and 2006 when Ohio State was the visiting team.
So here it is. The Hawkeyes, ranked 11th in the coaches’ poll, can actually gain a little more street cred if they beat a team from North Dakota.
Which is kind of cool, actually.