Let’s Go to the Dakotas (And the Rest of the FCS)

Up until the mid-2000s, I had a pretty good trivia question I used to like to throw around to hardcore college sports fans. It was, "what three states have no schools in Division I for football or basketball?"

The answer, at the time, was North Dakota, South Dakota, and Alaska (now, it's only Alaska).

So I maintain a fairly constant level of low-grade stun that not only have the Dakotas arrived in Division I, they are completely dominating football — and representing themselves pretty well in basketball, too.

You already know about North Dakota State's dominance on the gridiron and how they won five straight FCS championships and eight of the last nine. Aren't we all a bit shocked that they lost two conference games this year?

But you may not know or remember they have also made the Big Dance four times since making the jump to D1, with two wins. South Dakota State has five trips, and 10 FCS playoff appearances since 2009. They are the top seed in this spring's FCS playoffs.

North Dakota has made the tournament once, as well, and are in the FCS playoffs for the second year in a row.

Finally, there's South Dakota, who has (mumble mumble), let's move on.

(Okay, they made the FCS playoffs in 2017, and while they haven't made the NCAA tourney in basketball, they have made the NIT, CBI, and CIT).

I'm talking about this now because — don't know if you have noticed — the FCS quarterfinals in football are this Saturday, and of the eight remaining teams, three of them — North Dakota, North Dakota State, South Dakota State — are these Dakota powers.

Again, less than 20 years ago they weren't even in D1. They have elevated their football conference, the Missouri Valley Football Conference, to SEC-of-the-FCS status (conference member Southern Illinois is still alive, too).

And there could be more North Central dominance in the near future, too, at least hypothetically.

Does the name "St. Thomas" ring a bell? They have won 13 national championships in D3 since 2001 across five sports. That domination brought them a bit of national attention, but not as much as getting kicked out of the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic conference in 2019 for being too good.

Such was their plight the NCAA allowed them to jump from Division 3 straight to Division 1 (normally not allowed).

Division 3 is a non-athletic-scholarship level of the NCAA, and while St. Thomas will start offering scholarships for sports like basketball, where they will join the Summit League, they will remain non-scholarship for football, as the FCS has a non-scholarship football conference; the football-only Pioneer League.

The Pioneer League has no geographic purview and, well, look at its members. You'll recognize many names from strong-but-basketball-only conferences. In football, they are the island of misfit toys. I am genuinely puzzled how they are able to remain fairly competitive at the FCS level. They are not strong in non-conference FCS play, but they are not blown out of the water, either.

How do they accomplish that without scholarships? I get it with the service academies and the Ivy League. A lot of guys are good enough to play scholarship football, but have a different purpose in mind, and that takes them to Army, Navy, Air Force, or an Ivy.

But, and I am so sorry to pick on you as an example, dear Eagles, but no one is saying, "Yeah, I could've a football scholarship elsewhere, but I could only do what I wanted to do with my life by enrolling at Morehead State." Someone please explain this to me.

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