I didn’t intend to be covering North Dakota State’s 2021 FCS playoff run on-location in Fargo, but that’s how it worked out. While there are many analytical reasons why the NDSU Bison have been able to pick up the pieces and bid for yet another FCS championship, I was reminded of the biggest reason while shopping in Fargo on Saturday.
An older lady clerk was stuck working at a counter without a TV when the North Dakota State vs Eastern Washington kickoff came into the conversation. In another state or city, the cashier might have shrugged and said “I hope the (insert nickname) win today. My customers will come in and keep me informed.”
Instead, she shot me a piercing look that only pigskin fans recognize. “Every time I miss a half because I’m working, the Bison play bad,” she said. “I’m gonna see if I can stream the damn thing.”
That, my friends, is Institutional Focus. The institutional focus of a college football program cannot be measured, cannot be accounted for, and is also hard to define. It’s the natural ability of a campus, a fan base, and a team to focus only – key word “only” – on an upcoming game and opponent until the next key battle is won.
Institutional Focus is how the North Dakota State Bison survived the FCS bracket-of-16 on Saturday afternoon, reviving old times with a standard NDSU blow-out of rival Eastern Washington. But even though the 48-20 triumph looked like every bit of 2018 or ’19, the Bison are still not the shortest-odds favorite to prevail in 2021.
2021 FCS Championship Futures Odds and Recommended Picks
(Odds Courtesy of FanDuel Sportsbook)
South Dakota State (+115)
North Dakota State (+300)
James Madison (+600)
North Dakota (+750)
Sam Houston State (+1000)
Jacksonville State (+2000)
Southern Illinois (+2500)
If there’s anything 2020-21 has taught us about American football, it’s that the strength of teams is always relative and bound to fluctuate rapidly, even as a program appears to be hapless or indestructible. Early-spring FCS games were a dress rehearsal for shell-shocked players and coaches trying to adapt to brand new circumstances and challenges. Yet it’s only NDSU’s struggles in that formative, experimental stretch of pigskin that have the Bison in a bridesmaid’s position on the FCS betting board.
Chop the first 3 weeks out of North Dakota State’s spring season, and would the team appear all that different from those in other years which won FCS titles with a yawn? Perhaps an anxious 21-13 win over Illinois State in Week 5 (FCS seasons have varied so much in spring 2021 that there’s no such thing as “Week anything,” but a visit from the winless Redbirds served as “Week 5” for NDSU) wasn’t vintage Bison form, but you could see that the FargoDome was becoming a tough place for visiting offenses to play again. It was the NDSU quarterbacks who were a problem, continuing to produce almost no game-control while often firing under 50%, negating a long-time strength of the pass-happy Bison. QB Zeb Noland was totally overwhelmed in a 38-14 “Week 4” loss to FCS Q-Final seed Southern Illinois that snapped an historic win streak and threatened to define a season for a disappointing legacy team.
Since then, NDSU has been blocking and tackling a little better each weekend, and QB performance has started to slowly, surely tick upward. Noland was efficient in a 25-0 shutout of Missouri State, rebounded from another sour mid-season stretch with a good game against Northern Iowa, and looked poised to carry the Bison into the FCS playoffs. But when the former Iowa State Hawkeye went down with an injury in a loss to South Dakota State, all looked bleak again for Fargo’s chances to sustain a dynasty.
It took true freshman Cam Miller just one game to figure things out. Miller didn’t throw for more than a handful of yards against Eastern Washington, but his smoothness in the run game and security with the pigskin helped NDSU’s defense let loose and dominate.
Are the Bison the futures-odds steal of a decade at 3-to-1, or are the title hopes and the betting line a mirage based on memories of prolific passing games? Even from the perspective of Fargo itself, a smart FCS handicapper would tell the sportsbook to forget North Dakota State’s line and the favorites from SDSU with it.
NDSU’s high-octane offense has been the program’s cheat-code for over a decade now, so while the Bison are deservedly in the mix and improving hand-over-fist, there’s a question as to what happens when – not if – an opposing offense plays better than Eastern Washington did last weekend. Meanwhile, why rank the Jackrabbits as a near-prohibitive favorite based on a defeat of NDSU in its darkest hour?
James Madison is the strongest wager as of the FCS Q-Final round, a potential 6-to-1 payoff on a Dukes squad that’s hardly been threatened at all in 2021. JMU needed a 4th-quarter comeback to beat underdog Elon, but the 31-24 score of James Madison’s opening round defeat of Virginia Military is deceiving. VMI’s 3 touchdowns in the 2nd half made the final score respectable, but the Dukes intercepted the Cadets 3 times and dominated the contest on the ground, RB Jawan Hamilton netting 171 yards and a TD.
James Madison’s next opponent, North Dakota, is dealing with mysterious roster issues and a potential position-depth crisis.
Recommended bet: James Madison (+600)
FCS Playoff Quarterfinal Game Capsules and Best Bets
We’re still trading-off predictions at WagerBop this spring, and it seems like popular online sportsbooks are doing some “trading” of their own with the Football Championship Subdivision.
FanDuel Sportsbook has an excellent futures-odds market on potential FCS champions but no game lines as of Friday morning. Bovada Sportsbook is offering FCS quarterfinal game lines…and no futures odds.
Jack Sprat could eat no fat, and without a point spread, there is no lean. Maybe the FCS’s decision to schedule the Q-Finals on Sunday, not Saturday, has Sin City a bit thrown off. So we’ll shift sportsbooks as we shift authors, and turn the microphone over to international sports-pundit Nikola Velickovic for a look at Sunday’s FCS game odds courtesy of Bovada (sorry, FanDuel), the sportsbook that remembers the little guys. And the big Bison.
North Dakota State Bison at Sam Houston Bearcats
Elliott T. Bowers Stadium 9:00 PM CEST Sunday May 2, 2021
So, according to the vast majority of the fans and analysts, NDSU doesn’t have the quality to win its fourth title in a row here. Yet after seeing them play against Eastern Washington and scoring 35 straight points, many of those who suggested this remained quiet.
Sam Houston had a rough time against Monmouth, winning 21-15 and somehow progressing to the next stage. We are not going to take too much of your time here, but simply tell you to bet on the Bison. Why? Well, it seems that their ability to adapt is much better than Sam Houston’s. To be perfectly straight, the Bearkat had a lot of luck against Monmouth, and if the result went the other way, it wouldn’t be unfair.
Pick: North Dakota State Wins -135
Delaware Blue Hens vs Jacksonville State Gamecocks
Burgess-Snow Field 4:00 PM CEST Sunday May 2, 2021
Delaware is without a loss, while on the other side, Gamecocks have two, but in more than twice as many games played than their rivals. Many wonder whether Jacksonville’s players are tired and battered, yet these guys are still pushing hard. We’ve seen demolishing Davidson, 49-14 in the previous round.
On the other side, the Blue Hens’ defense is terrifying and arguably one of the best this year, which was apparent vs Sacred Heart, who scored just 10 points.
After looking at the line for the total, 41.5, we believe that this game is going to be a massive under due to Delaware’s strong D and Jacksonville’s tactical approach in the attack.
Pick: Under 41.5 -110
North Dakota Fighting Hawks vs James Madison Dukes
Bridgeforth Stadium/Zane Showker Field Sunday 6:00 PM CEST May 2, 2021
The Fighting Hawks are the best team in the quarterfinals per various experts. We aren’t going to say anything here, because they didn’t have the worthy opponent in the first round, with them rolling over Missouri State, 44-10. Though, it might be just our impression that the Bears are mediocre, maybe the Fighting Hawks are that good.
James Madison didn’t have a single defeat this year, but they did see some trouble against VMI in the previous round, winning 31-24. Still, we need to say that VMI’s offense was one of the best in the nation and that Dukes did a solid job in defense despite 24 allowed points.
The line for total points here is 52.5, and we believe that it is too much for this event.
Pick: Under 52.5 points -110
South Dakota State Jackrabbits vs Southern Illinois Salukis
Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium 9:00 PM CEST Sunday May 2, 2021
The one match where we simply don’t have the slightest doubts about the winner is this one. Simply, the Jackrabbits are better than their rivals, and they already showed that throughout this year. Back on March 20, they would massacre the Salukis 44-3.
Southern Illinois took a 3-0 lead, and that was pretty much it. We don’t believe that they have the quality to significantly change something in their game before this matchup, therefore, we are all in on the Jackrabbits in this case. Of course 1/7 is for parlays only.
Pick: South Dakota State Wins -700 or covers -15
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.