The only mystery left for North Dakota State's football team this regular season is whether it can go undefeated and match the Football Championship Subdivision record of 33 straight victories next week at Southern Illinois. The Bison crunched South Dakota 49-14 Saturday, Nov. 16, at the Fargodome, clinching the Missouri Valley Football Conference's automatic bid to the playoffs and all but assuring a top-two seed for the postseason.
Even with a loss in Carbondale, it would take a brain-freeze by the playoff committee to keep the Bison from being at home for the playoffs as long as they keep winning, right up to the national championship game in Frisco, Texas.
Not that the Bison wanted to talk about it after Saturday's big win.
"We’ve got one game left next week against Southern Illinois and that’s what we’re going to worry about," NDSU head coach Matt Entz said.
"As far as the outlook of playoffs and bidding and all that, we don’t really look at that," senior safety James Hendricks said.
As exciting as these guys are on the field, they are as boring as saltine crackers in postgame interviews.
Stop us if you've heard this before, like eight times since 2011. The road to Frisco on NDSU's side of the bracket again goes through Fargo. They will be heavy favorites to return to their north Texas home away from home. The Bison are 24-1 in FCS playoff games at the Fargodome since 2010.
"If they continue to play like they're playing right now, not making mistakes, I haven't seen a team on film that can beat them," South Dakota coach Bob Nielson said. "And I've seen a lot of good FCS teams and I'm sure there are some good FCS teams around that I haven't seen, but they are a complete operation right now. They have a really good defensive front. They are solid in the back end defensively. Really good on the offensive line. Good quarterback. Good running backs. Good receivers. Not a lot of weaknesses."
It's college football, and anything can happen on any given Saturday when you're dealing with 18- to 22-year-old men, but the Bison have put themselves in the perfect position to return to the title game.
Most of the rest of the field isn't nearly as certain, meaning the playoff selection show Nov. 24 is going to be wild and crazy.
And, for some teams, nerve-wracking. For others, heart-breaking. In other words, the usual Selection Sunday.
There will be 10 automatic qualifiers, conference champions all, after next week's games. That will leave it up to the committee to find 14 at-large teams to fill out the 24-team field.
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That's where it's going to be fun.
Teams that clinched auto bids Saturday included: NDSU from the Missouri Valley Football Conference, Central Connecticut State (Northeast), James Madison (CAA), Monmouth (Big South), San Diego (Pioneer) and Wofford (Southern Conference). The Big Sky, Ohio Valley, Patriot and Southland conferences have yet to decide their auto-bids. It seems likely (but not guaranteed) Montana, Austin Peay and Southeastern Louisiana will win those leagues respectively.
That leaves at least 16 teams in the running for the 14 at-large playoff bids.
You might want to take a deep breath before reading who has a chance. Ready?
In alphabetical order: Albany (7-4), Central Arkansas (8-3), Furman (7-4), Illinois State (8-3), Kennesaw State (9-2), Montana State (8-3), Nicholls (7-4), North Dakota (6-4), Northern Iowa (7-4), Sacramento State (8-3), Southeast Missouri State (8-3), South Dakota State (8-3), Southern Illinois (7-4), Towson (7-4), Villanova (8-3) and Weber State (8-3).
Some teams have victories over lower-level teams, which don't count as Division I wins, and some teams have losses to higher-level Football Bowl Subdivision teams, which in the committee's eyes don't really count as losses.
But you can see how many important games will be played next week and how entertaining the morning of Sunday, Nov. 24, is going to be. The selection show will be aired at 11:30 a.m. CST on ESPNU.
There will likely be two clear-cut favorites to make the title game -- top-ranked NDSU and No. 2-ranked James Madison. Then there will be a second-tier (SDSU, Sacramento State, Montana, Illinois State, Weber State) hoping to knock off one of the kingpins. And after that, it's a lot of teams that will need to pull a few upsets to get to Frisco.
Nielson believes, from what he's seen, NDSU is the team to beat. Part of it might be that he has a close relationship with Entz and has several other former players on the Bison staff.
"I'm proud of those guys. I think I have four former players on that staff and they've done a really good job of putting that team together. Like I told Matt after the game, I said, 'Hey, you guys have done a great job. Win them all now,'" Nielson said.