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Playing Kansas State deviates from NDSU's proven blueprint

by Mike McFeely

Gene Taylor and Craig Bohl have been geniuses when it comes to scheduling higher-level, non-conference opponents for their North Dakota State football team. Since the Bison began scheduling Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly I-A) teams in their NCAA Division I era, Bohl is 6-3 against teams in FBS.

Part of this success can be attributed to the excellence of the Bison, of course. NDSU made a nearly seamless transition to the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly I-AA) and have become the powerhouse of the division, winning the last two national championships.

  Craig Bohl

But part of it, too, can be credited to savvy scheduling by Taylor and Bohl. In 2006, NDSU's first year of scheduling higher-level opponents, the Bison played Ball State of the Mid-American Conference (29-24 win) and Minnesota of the Big Ten (10-9 loss).

In 2007, it was Central Michigan of the MAC (44-14 victory) and Minnesota again (27-21 victory). In 2008, the Bison lost 16-13 to Wyoming of the Mountain West Conference. In 2009, it was a 34-17 loss to Iowa State.

In 2010, the Bison began a string of playoff seasons with a core group of players that will go down as the best in school history. NDSU beat Kansas of the Big 12 6-3 that year. In 2011, the Bison crushed Minnesota 37-24 and in 2012 dominated an overmatched Colorado State team of the Mountain West 22-7.

That is an impressive showing against bigger programs, no doubt, but there needs to be a caveat: None of the FBS programs scheduled by Taylor and Bohl was particularly good. They were either teams from leagues not much more impressive than the Missouri Valley Football Conference (Ball State, Central Michigan, Wyoming, Colorado State) or teams from better leagues that just weren't very good (Minnesota, Iowa State, Kansas).

That's been part of the Taylor-Bohl scheduling collaboration all along -- find teams that are not national powerhouses so NDSU can compete and not get terribly banged up physically. The end goal competitively, after all, is FCS national championships. There are other factors, too, in this open line of communication.

"He and I talk a great deal about all teams and in particular the BCS opponents," Taylor said. "He has always wanted to play the Upper Midwest-type teams like Minnesota, Iowa, Iowa State, Kansas and K-State. He likes it from the ability of our fans to travel and the type of football they play. When I start talking about teams out of our region he has never been comfortable with that so, yes, he and I do agree which BCS teams we play and if there is one he is really not comfortable playing I move on to the next one."

This week's season opener against Kansas State fits most of the criteria required by Bohl. The Wildcats are a Midwest team that plays straightforward, physical football. Manhattan, Kan., is about a 10-hour drive from Fargo, allowing a presumed 3,500 or so Bison fans to make the long Labor Day weekend a day or two longer.

The area in which Taylor and Bohl miscalculated, however, was how strong Kansas State's program was going to be in 2013. These Wildcats are good. This will be the best FBS opponent scheduled by the Bison, by a long shot. K-State won the Big 12 last year and, until a late-season loss to Baylor, were in the discussion for a national championship. The Wildcats are not expected to be that strong this season, but is a team that doesn't resemble the weak Minnesota or Kansas teams that NDSU beat.

"This is not just a year. You're talking about a body of work of years and years and years," Bohl said. "Without question this will be the best program and the best team that we've faced."

The question is: Why did NDSU deviate from its tried-and-true formula of scheduling weak teams from major conferences?

Bison fans, at least those that spend copious amounts of time on message boards and blogs, would have you believe that Taylor and Bohl purposely scheduled a strong program to take a next step on the competitive ladder. The urban legend is they knew the Bison program was going to be a powerhouse and playing a perennial Top-25 team like K-State was in the long-range plan all along.

That would be bunk.

The truth is, NDSU and K-State agreed to this game in 2008 (although the contract wasn't officially signed until 2010). In 2008, not one NDSU player currently on the roster had set foot on campus. The Kansas State program, meanwhile, appeared to be back-sliding and in some ways was in turmoil. 

Legendary head coach Bill Snyder, who built the Wildcats from a doormat to an elite program from the 1990s into the 2000s, retired in 2005 after two straight losing seasons. He was replaced by Ron Prince, who went 7-6 in 2006 but was not highly regarded in the coaching world and had signed 19 junior-college recruits for his '08 recruiting class. Additionally, Prince signed a contract extension at the start of the 2008 season that was supposed to keep him in Manhattan through 2012. 

   Bill Snyder

Things fell apart quickly for Prince. He was fired in November 2008 after a 2-6 season and by early 2009 it was discovered that he had entered into a secret agreement with then-athletic director Bob Krause that was to pay Prince deferred compensation as a supplement to his buyout provision in his contract. After much legal wrangling, K-State wrote Prince a check for $2.85 million to make the matter disappear.

The end result for K-State football was that Snyder came out of retirement and resurrected the Wildcats program. After 6-6 and 7-6 records in his first two post-retirement seasons, the Wildcats went 10-3 and played in the Cotton Bowl in 2011. Last year, K-State went 11-2 and played in the Fiesta Bowl.

At 71, Snyder shows no signs of slowing down.

So, Coach Bohl, what are your thoughts of playing an upper-division major-conference team instead of a 98-pound weakling? Especially when your team is again favored to win the Missouri Valley league and compete for a national title.

When answering the question, Bohl smiled a knowing smile.

"This decision was made several years ago and we have what we have. We're excited about it right now," Bohl said.

(Mike McFeely is a talk-show host on KFGO-AM in Fargo, N.D. He can be reached at mike.mcfeely@mwcradio.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikeMcFeelyKFGO.)