The 2023 FCS playoffs get underway on Saturday and, for the first time ever, the Drake Bulldogs will be a part of them. Drake gave its fans a season to remember this fall, winning eight straight games after losing their first three. They took home their first Pioneer League crown and with it were awarded the conference’s auto bid to the postseason. Last Sunday, like their other 23 playoff counterparts, the Bulldogs watched in excitement as their name came across the screen. It was something that had never happened before and it was a historic milestone for the program. That excitement, though, had to be quelled at least a little when they saw who came up alongside them.
North Dakota State.
The Bison, as everyone knows by now, just don’t lose this time of year, especially at home. In fact, since 2010 35 different teams have rolled into Fargo and have attempted to knock off NDSU in their building during the postseason. 34 have failed. The one that didn’t is no longer in the FCS and has been killing it in the Sun Belt over the last two seasons. Drake, however, has no choice but to... at the very least... attempt to join the ultra-rarified air of 2016’s James Madison squad.
The odds are stacked so heavily against the Bulldogs in this one that every projected bracket you’ll see has NDSU moving on. And, quite frankly, that’s probably right. Not only do the Bison have such a rich history of dominance in their dome during the playoffs but Pioneer League teams simply don’t typically have what it takes to roll with the rest of the field in the postseason anyways.
The conference, consisting of mainly private schools, does not offer athletic scholarships to its football players. That, of course, means that Drake, along with their other ten PFL brethren, can’t usually pull in the big time talent that other FCS programs are able to and the results this time of year show it. Of the league’s 12 playoff appearances, they’ve only ever picked up two wins in the tournament. Both of those victories came from San Diego, one in 2016 and one in 2017.
And, if all that wasn’t enough, Drake will be seeing a version of North Dakota State no one wants to see; one that feels slighted about their position. For the first time in a long time the Bison are not a seeded team and, at 8-3, there’s a legitimate argument to be made that they got snubbed from a bye week and one of the top eight spots. NDSU is angry, at home and all-around the more talented team top to bottom.
The Bulldogs don’t have a lot going for them.
But, that won’t stop head coach Todd Stepsis and his team from showing up on Saturday. This group is used to big time opponents like this. Back in September, Drake took it on the chin from defending national champion South Dakota State shortly after they opened their season with a trip to Grand Forks to face North Dakota. They’re quite familiar with the Missouri Valley.
Quarterback Luke Bailey can whip it around, throwing for 2,447 yards and 16 touchdowns this fall. Receiver Mitchell January averages over 22 yards per catch and defensive lineman Finn Claypool is second in the FCS with 12.5 sacks this year. There’s definitely some guys on this team that can ball out.
The Bison are monster all their own, though. In all likelihood the Bulldogs’ great season is coming to an end this weekend but it’s still been a year to remember nonetheless.
The game kicks off at 3:30 PM (ET) on Saturday afternoon. Montana State looms large for the winner.