Rivalries are important. Not every team is going to make it to the championship game every season. The Bison won't either. There needs to be a game every season that means more. There should be a game that can make or break a season for bragging rights, for the fans and for the players. Proximity is important in a rivalry, but it's not always the biggest factor.
For years, North Dakota and North Dakota State was that rivalry in the state of North Dakota. If your team won that year, school/work on Monday was the best day of the year. It didn't matter if the two programs were national championship contenders or rebuilding. If your side won the Nickel Trophy that year no matter what else happened, the rest of the season wasn't a total loss.
There was plenty to argue about. The "ag" school vs. the "professional" school. Fargo vs. Grand Forks. The great hockey debate. UND maintains the lead in the all time series. North Dakota State has always had more national success. When UND failed to join NDSU in Division I, those arguments moved from the field and the court to the bar, social media, and the morning coffee table.
Both North Dakota State and South Dakota State decided to go to Division I together. Both schools also immediately recognized the need to create a rivalry. On April 21, 2004 administrators and other representatives from both schools met outside of Hankinson, ND and introduced the Dakota Marker. It might seem like a manufactured rivalry, but it was important to make a game matter each season during the transition period.
The football rivalry has been fun, though largely dominated by North Dakota State. NDSU leads the Dakota Marker series 7-4 and boasts two playoff victories over the Jackrabbits. While the Jacks are consistently nationally ranked and have 4 playoff appearances, the Bison are the premier program in the country and have 4 titles. Women's basketball hasn't been much of a rivalry either. South Dakota State has dominated. The Jacks have made 5 NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament appearances and dominated the head to head series with the Bison.
Where the rivalry is the strongest is Men's Basketball. There have been a number of prominent players for both squads during the Division I era. Ben Woodside, Nate Wolters, Taylor Braun and Lawrence Alexander have all been Summit League Player of the year. Wolters had a brief NBA career. 2009 was the first season that NDSU and SDSU were NCAA tournament eligible, and since that Summit League tournament, either the Jacks or the Bison have represented the Summit league in 5 of those 7 seasons.
NDSU and SDSU have pushed each other to succeed and it shows. As impressive as NDSU has been since the move to Division I SDSU fans have a lot to be proud of. The football games are always entertaining and the men's basketball contests are electric. Last year's Summit League championship game was no exception. The country watched on national television as the two schools, who tied for the regular season championship, vied for the right to be Mad in March.
The Bison and Jacks are rivals because they've been able to keep playing each other in every sport throughout their journeys to Division I. They've been able to stay in the same conference in every sport and the rivalry has evolved from being manufactured to organic. They're rivals because they have made similar progress during the Division I era. They're rivals because the players and fans don't like each other.
Is there as much passion in the NDSU/SDSU rivalry as with North Dakota? Certainly not. Will tickets to the Dakota Marker game go for as much money as the game against North Dakota? No, I don't think so. Yes, UND plays NDSU every year in basketball, baseball, volleyball and a number of other sports, but they are largely meaningless non-conference games. NDSU vs. SDSU contests have season-long consequences, and that series continues Saturday.