Kolpack: It’s a gauntlet on steroids for NDSU

FARGO — If you want a lesson in Murderers’ Row football scheduling, try being Don Morton in 1981. The North Dakota State head coach faced road games at Northern Michigan, Northern Arizona and Northern Colorado to open the season and then the home opener against North Dakota.
The Bison pretty much played every NCAA Division II school with “Northern or North” in it before one leaf in the Red River Valley turned color. And there for a while the season looked like it was heading south when Northern Michigan and Northern Arizona put back-to-back thumpings on the Bison to start them 0-2.
NDSU rebounded by reaching the Division II playoffs, won road games at Pudget Sound (Wash.) and Shippensburg State (Pa.) before losing in the Palm Bowl in McAllen, Texas, to Southwest Texas State.
That team had the unofficial record for miles traveled in one season until the 2006 Division I version of the program played in Indiana, Texas, Georgia, Minneapolis, Utah and California in one seven-week stretch.
On Saturday, in Youngstown, Ohio, the Bison begin what looks to be the most daunting Murderers’ Row in their Division I FCS history. In 2008, NDSU played four straight ranked teams in Youngstown, Southern Illinois, Western Illinois and Northern Iowa, but the next six games for this year’s team is tougher than that. So the tag Murderers’ Row applies since that was nickname for the top six batters in the 1927 New York Yankees lineup.
In order, NDSU plays No. 8 Youngstown, No. 17 Western, Northern Iowa, No. 7 South Dakota State, No. 4 South Dakota and No. 15 Illinois State. UNI is just a few votes short of No. 25 or it would be, at this point, six straight ranked teams.
“Everyone talks about this six-week stretch with all these Valley conference games and it’s going to be tough,” said cornerback Jaylaan Wimbush, “but we only have to take it one game at a time, one play at a time.”
Call it what you want, play time is over. The combined record of NDSU’s first five opponents is 8-18 with Eastern Washington resurrecting an 0-2 start with a 3-0 showing in the Big Sky Conference and four straight wins overall.
Take the first quarter of the Eastern game out of the equation and this schedule has been the Little Five followed by the Big Six. The USA Today’s Sagarin Ratings power index says as much, with the average of the first five opponents at 197.8 out of 254 Division I football teams and the next six at 89.8.
NDSU is the highest-rated FCS team at No. 39. Youngstown is No. 74 followed by SDSU at 75 and USD at 76. Those four programs are higher than 59 FBS programs including everybody in the Sun Belt. Does that mean all four are better than those 59? Maybe, maybe not, but Jeff Sagarin’s formula has been around since the 1980s.
The Penguins are going through a similar gauntlet starting with SDSU two weeks ago. It was South Dakota last week, the Bison this week and UNI and Illinois State the following two weeks.
“We kind of expect that out of our conference,” said Youngstown offensive lineman Justin Spencer. “Everybody may not be ranked in the top 10, but our conference games are always like that.”
Since NDSU joined the Valley in 2008, the rise in the number of top-10 caliber teams is striking. It was two or three a year for several years. There are currently six in the top 17 of the FCS coaches poll with Western Illinois being 17th. With four road wins including Coastal Carolina and UNI, and the only defeat to No. 4 USD, you could easily make a case for the Leathernecks to be ranked in the top 10.
Now that’s a Murderers’ Row on steroids.