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Jeff Kolpack, Published September 16 2013

Several factors in play regarding FCS' recent success against higher-tier teams

Fargo - It wasn’t a surprise to Lou Holtz when North Dakota State defeated Kansas State in the college football season opener for both teams. The ESPN analyst predicted it.

But not many could have figured that 13 NCAA Division I FCS schools would march into bigger FBS stadiums and come out with a victory so far this season.

That’s easily a record for FCS wins against its big brothers in one season.

And it wasn’t so much the number of FCS victories as it was the quality.

NDSU defeated the Big 12 Conference defending champions. Eastern Washington beat 25th-ranked Oregon State, just the third time an FCS program has beaten a ranked FBS team. Closer to home, Northern Iowa knocked off Iowa State of the Big 12 in convincing fashion.

Moreover, it’s not just the top-ranked FCS teams doing the damage, either. Last weekend, Fordham of the non-scholarship Patriot League defeated FBS Temple.

There’s a difference in facing those programs as opposed to Georgia State, which is new to FBS and has a ways to go before it approaches the quality of a major conference team. The Panthers, coached by former Indiana State head coach Trent Miles, lost to unranked FCS schools Samford and Chattanooga, hardly early season contenders to reach Frisco, Texas, the site of the FCS title game.

“I’ve always said there’s just not that big of a difference anymore between the two levels,” said Southern Illinois head coach Dale Lennon.

Why?

Some FCS coaches point to the increasing number of FBS schools offering high school players scholarships at an earlier age, like when they are sophomores. The pressure to get a so-called four- or five-star recruit to commit in their junior year of high school appears to be getting more intense.

“I think a lot of recruiting mistakes are being made,” said Youngstown State head coach Eric Wolford. “Kids who commit when they’re sophomores or juniors haven’t fulfilled their potential yet and you don’t know what the finished product is going to be.”

The advantage for FCS programs, then, is they can wait for a player to go through his senior year. NDSU head coach Craig Bohl tells the story of the University of Texas having its entire recruiting class done before the Longhorns’ season even started.

“I can tell you, the recruiting has picked up even faster in offering younger players,” said Illinois State head coach Brock Spack. “And sometimes, they make a mistake. Then you have guys sitting around there that we think are pretty good football players ending up falling into our laps.”

Wolford, Bohl and Spack all coached for several years at the FBS level as assistant coaches, so they have a pretty good gauge to the FBS recruiting frenzy.

The problem with offering early, Bohl said, is estimating the growth of a player. Football is different than other sports, he said, because physical maturity is a big part of the game.

NDSU has increased the number of its early offers in the last couple years, too, although that’s been more out of necessity because of the FCS playoffs. In 2010, the Bison reached the quarterfinals before seeing their season end in December.

Meanwhile, they admittedly fell behind on the recruiting trail and whether that’s a big reason only seven of the 20 players in the 2011 recruiting class are still on the team is only speculation. Certainly, recruiting is not an exact science.

When Bohl was at Nebraska, for instance, the Cornhuskers would have 10 recruiting targets at say, tight end on their board. The trick was evaluating on who the top two players were at the position.

“And sometimes there’s not a lot of difference between No. 2 and No. 3,” Bohl said. “I think we’ve been fortunate here at NDSU that a lot of our guys who may have been passed over by a number of large BCS schools have developed into quite frankly BCS players. I’m sure NDSU is not the only school like that.”

Kansas State would probably second that. The Bison drove 80 yards in 18 plays, taking almost nine minutes to do it for the game-winning drive two weeks ago. Oregon State would probably second that. The Beavers gave up 625 total yards to the FCS Eagles, including 448 through the air.

“Let’s face it, the team with the best athletes doesn’t always win the football game,” said South Dakota State head coach John Stiegelmeier. “It’s the best football team that wins the football game and if you can get your FCS players to play great football, you should be able to compete with a lot of different teams.”

Stiegelmeier said he’s not necessarily in the camp that FBS offering players at a younger age is hurting those programs on a nation-wide basis. He said that’s probably more prevalent in areas of the country that are more populated like the East Coast and the hot recruiting areas in the southeast like Florida, Georgia and Texas.

He’s correct in the case of Minnesota: the Gophers have just six verbal commitments according to Rivals.com. NDSU has four.

In contrast, Texas has 24 for the 2014 class and already has eight for the 2015 class. Kansas State has 15 commitments for this year.

“You’re hedging your bets, and if you project too much, you’re going to make some errors,” Bohl said. “There’s some real credence to that assessment.”

It’s an educated roll-the-dice world of finding the best high school players out there. No longer do the top programs have access to more high school players because of higher recruiting budgets.

Technology is helping the FCS programs in evaluating players. Instead of driving seven hours to watch a kid play, Illinois State’s Spack says now he can get an email of a player and have him evaluated in a matter of minutes.

“Maybe there are more high school players available to folks who didn’t have that technology,” he said. “It seemed like five, six, seven years ago, we were begging people for DVD’s and tape. Now it comes through email, stacks and stacks of it each day.”

Whatever the case, the gap appears to be closing despite the vast differences in athletic budgets. The seven teams that beat FBS programs in the opening weekend received a combined $2.4 million in guarantees, according to ESPN. NDSU got $350,000 from K-State.

“We always cheer for FCS teams anytime they go against a big school,” said Bison defensive end Cole Jirik. “We know the top teams in the FCS are just as good as some FBS schools.”

FBS teams are allowed 85 scholarships to the FCS’ 63, although FCS programs are allowed to divide their allotment over as many players as they want.

Therein is another point in the FCS closing the gap. It gives the FCS programs the advantage of putting a small amount of money into a player considered a “project.” The Bison have made a living in recent years of offering linemen who have physically matured since coming to NDSU.

Starting right tackle Joe Haeg was a 6-6, 265-pound walkon in 2011. As a high school senior in Brainerd, Minn., he weighed 240. He’s now at 293 and one of the best at his position in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. Freshman Landon Lechler, the backup at left tackle, was 6-7 and 250 pounds out of high school in Beach, N.D. He’s at 275 and growing.

There are more than strength issues, too. Take NDSU quarterback Brock Jensen, who was most seriously pursued by Division II schools until late in the recruiting process. When NDSU’s No. 1 recruiting choice, prep quarterback A.J. Westendorp opted for Central Michigan, the Bison turned to Jensen and he happily accepted.

Westendorp played sparingly as a quarterback and is now a backup senior tight end with the Chippewas. Jensen has two national title rings.

Or take cornerback Marcus Williams, who was more heralded as a high school basketball player in the Twin Cities.

“The talent base is definitely there,” Lennon said. “Maybe we’re not getting some of those three-, four- or five-star recruits, but there’s a lot of talent out there and because of that schools like us, North Dakota State and South Dakota State are getting some pretty talented players. They may get overlooked their junior year but by the time it comes to their senior year we can get them.”

Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack can be reached at (701) 241-5546.

Kolpack’s NDSU media blog can be found

at www.areavoices.com/bisonmedia