It's easy for an FCS program to "come out of nowhere." Last year's Jacksonville State squad lost by 11 in the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs to Sam Houston State. They came into this season ranked 7th, without much national discussion. The first year NDSU won an FCS title (2011) they were ranked 11th in the preseason.
Part of that is the quality of coverage nationally. There are very few national writers who look at FCS as a whole and get a good feel for the quality of teams and the strength of the conferences they play in. National rankings are largely an aggregate of rankings from different regions. I'm sure there are writers from the Missouri Valley who have never seen a Southland team play a game. I'm also quite sure the opposite is true.
The other reason it's so easy for and FCS teams to come out of nowhere (and this is the one we'll talk about here) are transfers from the FBS. These players make an immediate impact on programs. It's not that they are all better athletes than players who signed letters of intent to play FCS originally (sometimes they are, sometimes they aren't), it's that they can play right away. In almost every case of moving from FBS to FCS the transferring player is allowed to play immediately.
As with any transfer, it can be for a lot of different reasons. Lack of perceived playing time in the future, needing to be closer to home, change in coaching staff, whatever the issue is there are a large number of Division I athletes that switch from the FCS to the FBS every year. Some programs depend on them.
NDSU's main rival (though the two teams have avoided each other in conference play) for the MVFC title has been Illinois State. The Redbirds have focused a lot on the FBS transfer since Brock Spack took over as the school's head coach in 2009. The Redbirds currently have seven FBS transfers on the roster, including regular contributors QB Tre Roberson and DE David Roberson. The Redbirds announced four FBS transfers after last year's runner-up finish and are being mentioned as potential suitors for several Midwest FBS athletes looking to move schools in 2016.
Jacksonville State appears to have taken the FBS transfer route of acquiring talent to another level. The Gamecocks have 17 FBS transfers on their 2015 roster. Six of the defensive players that started in their semifinal (that would be more than half) win over Sam Houston State transferred in. The Gamecocks D is made up of four FBS transfers and two transfers from junior colleges.
Counting on transfers is a dangerous game. Homegrown talent doesn't get as much of a chance develop. Recruiting often becomes more difficult when a program shows a propensity to fill its holes with older players from other programs.
Sometimes the game works. The last two teams that the Bison have faced in the championship game have gotten huge contributions from transfers. It is one path to success at the FCS level.
North Dakota State isn't immune to players wanting to transfer to play for the Bison. The Thundering Herd wouldn't be where they were without former Nebraska running back King Frazier or right guard and former Crookston Golden Eagle Jeremy Kelly. Kelly was a player originally recruited by the Bison out of Wisconsin. Frazier was also recruited by NDSU in high school, and found more playing time in Fargo than was in his future in Lincoln.
With that said, NDSU believes in the culture of their program and the four and five year athletes it creates. All seven Bison in the NFL gave either four or five years to North Dakota State. The 2013 Bison, arguably the greatest FCS team of all time, featured 22/22 "homegrown" starters. In fact, most of the transfers that play for the Bison come from regional junior college or Division II programs.
How do the Bison do it without dipping into the FBS transfer "market"? Player development. North Dakota State prides itself on both an exceptional coaching staff led by head Coach Chris Klieman and a strength and conditioning program that's second to none in the country, led by Jim Kramer. NDSU student-athletes improve year after year, and leave the university better athletes than when they arrived. Being a Bison is a full-time job.
That kind of player development is how a defense that gave up 38 points and over 500 yards to Montana in the season opener has progressed into a historically good unit in the playoffs with the same kids it started with. The Bison are almost always better in December than they were in August.
When the Bison and the Gameocks get together in Frisco on Saturday, January 9th, both teams will be fighting for a national championship. One team will be going for their fifth straight. That might have a little bit to do with how North Dakota state continues to reload, not rebuild.