Philadelphia, PA – Coach Craig Bohl remembers the anxious feeling in the room when the North Dakota State football program was hoping to gain its first FCS playoff bid in 2010.
The Bison exhaled with relief that morning when they were given the last at- large bid in the 20-team field.
It's the rest of the FCS that has been breathing heavy ever since.
Once the pre-eminent program in NCAA Division II, NDSU has become one of the best in the FCS since its transition, first as a member of the former Great West Conference in 2004 and now in the Missouri Valley Football Conference since 2008.
While other schools thought they deserved the last playoff bid in 2010, NDSU justified its spot by winning two games and then taking eventual national champion Eastern Washington to overtime on the road in the quarterfinals.
The big 2010 run set up the Bison for their national championship last season. They have an excellent chance to win back-to-back titles because no team has been better throughout the 2012 season, with the Bison ranked No. 1 for the majority of the season and boasting the FCS's top-ranked defense. They have a 24-2 record since the start of the 2011 campaign.
Bohl said the Selection Sunday that just passed had a feeling of excitement for the Bison, but not as much anticipation as the two previous years. Members of his squad already could sense they would get the No. 1 seed.
Now the Bison want to justify it in the playoffs, starting in the second round on Dec. 1 against the Eastern Illinois-South Dakota State survivor from the first round.
In Five-a-Side - In the FCS Huddle's monthly feature of "five questions, five answers" with an influential person in the FCS - the 54-year-old Bohl discusses the playoffs ahead and what's changed for his team since last season's national championship run.
Let's kick off:
TSN: What's similar and what's different about the start of the playoffs this year now that your program comes in as the defending champion?
CB: I think on the outside a lot of people maybe had looked at us (last year) as another school that was in the playoffs. Once you're crowned champion, without question, you're no longer going to be a school that's just running under the radar. I think people will look and say, 'OK, this team has a proven track record, they've got players who can win a championship.' And therefore, other opponents I'm sure look and say, 'They're a good program, we're going to need to get ourselves ready to play to win.'
TSN: What's similar and what's different about this year's team from a year ago?
CB: Well, we don't have as much experience. I mean, we were a pretty veteran team last year and this year we only have three seniors who are playing. To be where we're at with only three seniors, and two of them are starting now, that's pretty remarkable. We had a lot of experience go out the door last year. I think we're a little bit more athletic this year than we were last year. I'm hoping that our athleticism plus the experience that we garnered through the regular season in the Missouri Valley is gonna do us well as we get into playoffs.
TSN: When you look at your defense, it seems like a different player stands out each week. How does your system make that happen?
CB: Well, we feel like we have some pretty talented guys over there within that, and we operate out of our pro-style defense. Different offenses are going to try to expose a defense, and so during the course of the year those guys that have been exposed have answered the bell and played well. We've got some good players over there and they're going to need to play well as we get in the stretch (run).
TSN: How important is home field advantage in the playoffs when you're 11-0 on the road the last two years?
CB: Yeah, it's a little bit of a dichotomy there. That's hard to explain. I can tell you that the Fargodome has turned into an electric atmosphere, I think it's great for college football. The Fargodome by one website was listed as one of the Top 50 football venues in the country. Our fans have been great, our students have been great. That makes it a fun place to play.
TSN: How about this particular group, what is the personality that it has taken on?
CB: I think within the mind-set of it there's a lot of young players who have played in a lot of big games. So sometimes I don't know if they recognize the challenges of going through a rigorous season and getting into the playoffs. Because of their youth, they're just excited to play the next game.