October 17th was one of the worst Saturdays in North Dakota State's Division I history. The University of South Dakota is the biggest underdog to come into the Fargodome and get a win since the Bison started FCS play. After dropping the opening game to Montana, North Dakota State had a smaller margin for error than in years past. As much as the Thundering Herd depend on the home crowd to get them through playoff games the Bison put themselves in a position where they could probably only lose one Valley game and maintain home field advantage in the playoffs.
That game has been lost. They didn't lose to Illinois State, the national runner up from a season ago. They didn't lose to Northern Iowa or South Dakota State either, two rivals who have given them trouble in the past. They lost to a big underdog at home, and this time they didn't have the incoming undefeated record to cushion them as they did in 2011 and 2012.
The season-altering loss to South Dakota was probably not the worst thing that happened to the Bison Football program on Saturday. Team leader and NFL prospect QB Carson Wentz was lost for the remainder of the regular season. Wentz broke a bone in his right wrist against South Dakota and had to have surgery. For Wentz to return it is likely that the Bison need to either secure a bye week or make it to the second round of the playoffs.
That burden falls on freshman quarterback Easton Stick. The Creighton Prep product from Omaha Nebraska is a very highly thought of recruit, as I discussed here after Wentz injured his ankle against Montana. Stick will now start his first college game, and the Bison will start their first game without their preferred starter at QB since 2010.
North Dakota State has been favored (usually heavily) in every FCS game since winning the national championship in 2011. The ability of the program to develop young talent underneath a core group of talent that stayed together for a long time led to four titles in a row. The Bison put forth a record of 58-3 over the course of their 4 championship seasons, but if Stick and the Bison can't run the table into the playoffs, they'll lose that many games in the 2015 regular season alone.
FCS National Championships have become the expectation of the Bison program. Not appearances, victories. Over the course of the last four seasons trips to Frisco, TX have become foregone conclusions. In fact, the certainty with which the media and fan base expected these titles has somewhat diminished the actual achievement. North Dakota State has made winning FCS titles look so easy, people have forgotten that it isn't.
Without Wentz, the Bison are not "foregone conclusion" favorites to win the FCS title. They might not be the favorites, period. North Dakota State already needs help from other teams to win a share of the Missouri Valley Conference title. They won't get a chance to knock off Illinois State. Someone is going to have to do it for them.
The Bison haven't had to operate without huge targets on their back in a number of seasons. Bison fans haven't gone into a Saturday without a supreme air of confidence in a very long time, either. It's easy to say that an NDSU team won't go undefeated but at the same time its always been hard to pick the game. Only in 2014 did the Bison fall to a "good" opponent, and only in that game was it on the road. North Dakota State will play the next five games with questions from their fans and modified expectations from their opponents. This is new ground for the Thundering Herd.
Easton Stick is testing new waters as well. A very successful quarterback in high school, Stick has just a few college snaps to his credit with no passing attempts. NDSU has to go at least 4-1 over the next five games to ensure home playoff games. While Stick, his teammates and the coaching staff will continue to preach going 1-0 each week, they (and he) know what lies ahead. Any freshman quarterback would have an incredible amount of weight on his shoulders. Stick will have to deal with being so highly touted and needing to "preserve the season" as well.
The Bison and their young QB are going to break from the status quo together. Their ability to succeed or fail will ultimately define the 2015 season. If Stick fails and the Bison open the playoffs on the road, they might bow out early. If they bow out early the national title streak will be over and the Bison Dynasty will be in question. If the young QB pulls the team together and bridges the gap to Wentz's return the Bison could make it back to Frisco. If they win again, it will easily be the most fun championship since the first one.