On September 2nd, for the first time since 2012, a full-throated Fargo Dome crowd will cheer on a North Dakota State Bison football team that will not take the field as reigning national champions.
While they walk through the tunnel, they will pass placards reminding them of Bo Schembechler’s iconic motto, “Those who stay will be champions.” As the verses of AC-DC’s Thunderstruck boom over the Fargo Dome’s audio system, the Herd will sprint onto the field without raising a new national championship banner.
Exactly five years to the date of their first Division-I Football Championship Subdivision national championship, the Bison finally lost their crown as the “Reigning National Champions”. The James Madison University Dukes now hold the title. They will have the 123 other FCS teams gunning for them.
For five consecutive years, it was the Bison who bore the target on their backs.
Now, seeking to ease the sting of their first home playoff defeat since 2010, the Bison are angling to take the target right back.
“We came out with a really good intensity and fire. The whole offseason, we weren’t coming off the national title, which is unique for us,” senior wide receiver R.J. Urzendowski remarked following the opening of NDSU’s fall practices.
“There’s definitely just more of a fire. We had that target on our backs for so long, and now we’ve got to go get it back,” the veteran continued.
The sentiment on which Urzendowski touched is the inspiration for the Bison’s mantra for the season. Without a shiny new trophy for the first time since January 7th, 2011, NDSU football players and coaches have one thing on their minds: Stay Hungry.
Senior defensive tackle and 2017 team captain Nate Tanguay did not hesitate nor mince words when discussing the team’s objectives for the year. “Just like always: conference championship. That’s the main goal right away,” he stated.
Captain and free safety Tre Dempsey expanded on this, saying “The first goal always is to win the Missouri Valley conference, which is always a challenge. But after that, we’re definitely trying to win the national championship, and nothing less.”
Both the STATS and FCS Coaches’ preseason polls have NDSU slotted at No. 2, below titleholders James Madison.
But by head coach Chris Klieman’s own evaluation of the squad he is tasked to steward back to FCS supremacy, nothing has changed with respect to the team’s desires and intentions.
Asked at his media day press conference what’s different without the target on their backs, Klieman authoritatively stated “Absolutely nothing in my opinion. It’s business as usual. … This is the 2017 Bison.”
That being said, Klieman and his staff were forced to reckon with the reality that changes needed to be made in order to get back to the top.
The hiring of Courtney Messingham as the new offensive coordinator marked the most prominent of these changes. The former FBS coach will streamline the passing game for the Bison by simplifying play calls and emphasizing efficiency.
These changes to the aerial attack will be critical if the Bison are to improve on their 58.1% completion percentage from last season. Messingham’s new system will likely yield a substantial jump in completions as well, a category in which the Bison ranked in the bottom third off the FCS a season ago.
Additionally, NDSU coaches realized it was imperative to bring their depth up to James Madison’s level. Chris Klieman felt a lack of depth, particularly in special teams, was one of the reasons the Dukes were able to knock off the Bison at home in the semifinals of last year’s playoffs.
To improve towards this end, Klieman opted to ditch his special team’s depth chart, the first time he has done so.
In post-mortem evaluations with the team’s seniors, it was decided that a greater level of intra-team competition needed to be created throughout the season. Klieman realized that too often on special teams, players were content to compete for backup spots.
By removing the depth chart, Klieman’s hope is that all players will compete for starting positions.
Special teams weren’t the only area in which Klieman hoped to see an improvement in depth.
This is why the head coach is thrilled to see competition brewing amongst his offensive line and defensive front. With senior Austin Kuhnert and Colin Conner the only two returning starters on the offensive line, many players will be in the mix to fill out the line.
Additionally, coach Klieman believes that eight players are in contention on both the defensive line and linebacker position. The intense competition at these tone-setting positions will only serve the Bison well later down the road. Competition at many different positions is a good problem for Chris Klieman to have.
Instilling competition and drive in all units will only serve the Bison well, as Tanguay touched upon. “Mentally, we’re going to amp it up, more than we ever have before, and I think that’s great for us,” the veteran defensive tackle said.
Facing an unfamiliar situation forced the Bison to take a long hard look in the mirror. The Bison needed to make necessary changes to the way things were done in order to make a return to Frisco.
All of these changes revolve around NDSU’s core attitude for the season, “Stay Hungry”. Beyond a new system and roster, it will take passion, desire, and drive to hoist the championship trophy once again.
Whether or not the Bison have adapted enough to keep pace with an increasingly competitive Missouri Valley conference and FCS field remains to be seen. One thing is certain, this is the hungriest Bison football team heading into a season in quite some time.