Note: this article only pertains to Division I sports that both schools sponsor. There will be no discussion of Big XII wrestling or NCHC men's ice hockey.
When Gene Taylor announced that North Dakota State University would be moving all sports to the NCAA's Division I, there were two reactions. There were those who got excited and had big dreams of big moments and those who had doubts. It seems like such an obvious move now, but at the time it took a tremendous amount of courage to take that step.
The logical step for the University of North Dakota would have been to join NDSU in making the jump. It would have kept the football and basketball rivalries alive and given both schools a partner with which to enter this "brave new world". North Dakota's athletic director at the time, Roger Thomas, didn't pull the trigger. UND stayed in Division II until 2008.
NDSU had to find a different dance partner. South Dakota State decided to be that partner. The Bison and the Jackrabbits have followed each other from conference to conference, and both have encountered success along the way. The two schools got together and created a traveling trophy for the football game to played annually between the two schools. Sound familiar? It replaced the Nickel Trophy, which ended after the two schools stopped playing and became completely retired after UND lost the "Fighting Sioux" nickname.
NDSU has made the Division I transition more successfully than any school before it. In just 11 years the Bison have captured 4 FCS National Championships in football and have made 3 appearances in the NCAA Men's basketball tournament including an appearance in the round of 32 after a victory over Oklahoma. Football also boasts victories over FBS schools, Minnesota (twice), Kansas, Kansas State, Central Michigan, Ball State and Iowa State.
The baseball program participated in the College World Series playoffs and both the men's and women's track and field programs are dynastic. Volleyball and softball have also made multiple NCAA tournament appearances. If I've failed to mention something it's because NDSU's Division I transition has been so impressive.
South Dakota State hasn't been a slouch, either. The Women's basketball team has made 6 NCAA tournament appearances, and the men two. The men's basketball program also produced an NBA player, Minnesota native Nate Wolters. The football team boasts 4 FCS playoff appearances, reaching the second round three times.
Things haven't gone as well for UND (or South Dakota for that matter). Whether or not it's because they waited longer to move up to Division I or not, the University of North Dakota hasn't achieved much at this level. Football has no playoff appearances to speak of, one winning season at the Division I level and an embarrassing home loss to NAIA Sioux Falls.
Men's Basketball hasn't fared much better. They also lost to a non-NCAA team at home (Mayville State), have had only one winning season at DI and no 20 win seasons. The best team during UND's reclassification has arguably been women's basketball. North Dakota's women's program won the Big Sky in 2014 and has been consistently able to beat NDSU in head to head meetings.
Any way you slice it, there is a huge gap in between what the two state schools in North Dakota have accomplished since 2004. Whether it's Roger Thomas' fault for not moving UND up, his successors' fault for being unable to succeed or NDSU's fault for consistently exceeding expectations the two programs have gone in completely different directions. It shows in fan interest, attendance, merchandise sales and especially in recruiting.
In football at least the gap would seem to be narrowing. Not a lot, but the mighty Bison dropped the opener to Montana, and North Dakota finally got a win over an FBS school the following weekend. UND took down the former head coach of the Thundering Herd, Craig Bohl and his Wyoming Cowboys. While the Bison are the premier program in FCS and still might have the best team in the country this season, they are not bulletproof. While North Dakota's victory might have been softened by the very same Wyoming Cowboys being destroyed by perennial doormat Eastern Michigan, it's clear that they are no longer completely inept.
The key for North Dakota State moving forward is to maintain that gap. Being at different levels of success and in different conferences, NDSU and UND are not nearly the direct competition that they were in Division II. With that said, North Dakota athletes have been and continue to be paramount to NDSU's success. Ryan Smith, Dexter Werner, AJ Jacobson, Austin Richard, Andrew Grothmann, Tyler Roehl, Kyle Steffes, and Travis Beck are just a few of the North Dakota natives that have built NDSU's Division I athletic program.
The difference in the quality of the two athletic programs has led the biggest name athletes in North Dakota to almost exclusively choose NDSU for men's basketball or football. Current Bison Carson Wentz, Stanley Jones, Ty Brooks and Brock Robbins are all North Dakota natives with reported UND offers that chose to play at NDSU. The ability to recruit nationally and get guys like Easton Stick out of Nebraska and Bruce Anderson out of Florida is great, but Bison Pride is strong in North Dakota, and North Dakota athletes have been invaluable to building BisoNation.
The Thundering Herd is heavily favored on Saturday. Even the most staunch North Dakota supporter will more than likely tell you they don't expect to walk out of the Fargodome with a victory. What might happen, though, is a change in perception. If North Dakota can keep this game closer than most expect it could feed the idea that the gap is narrowing. It would be in the best interest of the Bison to make sure that doesn't happen.