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Watch out Iowa. North Dakota State likes to take the money and win

Coach Chris Klieman has continued the winning tradition at North Dakota State, with FCS titles the past two seasons. AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

The general thought for many FBS programs is to schedule an early season nonconference opponent from a lower level, dole out a couple hundred thousand bucks and bask in the blowout of an overmatched opponent.

It's a simple formula, really. Fill the stadium, collect the gate and build confidence on the path toward bowl eligibility and beyond. What could go wrong?

Scheduling North Dakota State, for one thing.

Since 2010, the Bison have played five different FBS opponents on the road. North Dakota State has won all five games. Grand total in guaranteed payouts: $1.675 million.

In other words, buyer, beware: The Bison will take your program's money. And then they'll take your pride.

Which brings us to this week. No. 13 Iowa (2-0) plays host to North Dakota State (2-0) at noon ET Saturday in Kinnick Stadium. The Hawkeyes will pay the Bison $500,000. And by the time the game is over, they'd better hope the cost was worth it.

"We probably have to have a scheduling meeting," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz told reporters. "This is just a walk in the park for them."

North Dakota State is in the midst of a college football dynasty that has rarely been seen before. In the past five years the program is 73-5. The Bison have won five consecutive FCS championships, which includes 20 straight playoff victories. In many respects, North Dakota State is an FBS program that simply plays at the FCS level, where it can offer only 63 full scholarships instead of 85.

"It's like looking at Bill Russell's record in playoffs," Ferentz said. "It's ridiculous. ... They have a lot of good players. They just don't have 85 of them. Their top 40, I would say, probably is as good as anybody's."

Ferentz said he began to take notice of North Dakota State when he watched tape of a 2007 game against Minnesota in the Metrodome. NDSU won 27-21 in a contest that had more than 30,000 Bison fans in attendance. That game, Ferentz noted, was not a fluke. And the Bison have since backed up the victory by beating Kansas, Minnesota again, Colorado State, Kansas State and Iowa State.

Those wins have actually given the Bison the fifth-longest active winning streak in the country against FBS opponents. According to ESPN Stats & Information, North Dakota State -- the top-ranked team in the FCS -- would be favored over 46 FBS schools on a neutral field, including four teams from Power 5 conferences. This week, Ferentz likened the team's physical style to Michigan State, while Iowa players compared it to Wisconsin.

So, what makes North Dakota State's program special?

NDSU coach Chris Klieman said it begins with the culture. There is a blue-collar work ethic players must possess, and Klieman will not allow for complacency despite so much success.

"Our motto here is, stay humble and stay hungry," said Klieman, who has been on staff since 2011 and took over as head coach in 2014. "You're only as good as your last football game. We need to continue to improve."

Klieman's recruiting base generally focuses on the upper Midwest. Of the 112 players listed on the roster, the largest contingent out of one state comes from Minnesota (36). North Dakota is second with 23 players, followed by Wisconsin with 18 players. There are only two junior college transfers on the roster, as well as two FBS transfers.

"The big thing is, we're a developmental program," Klieman said. "We're bringing recruits in wanting them to develop over the three-, four-, five-year period. They get invested into our program a lot more."

North Dakota State has thrived on the recruiting trail by finding prospects who are fringe FBS players but don't garner the scholarship offers they believe they deserve. Klieman's message to recruits is that NDSU is every bit as good as many mid-major FBS programs from the Mid-American, the Mountain West or the Sun Belt conferences. Plus, the Bison have a tradition of competing for national championships.

It was a selling point that convinced linebacker Nick DeLuca to take a chance on North Dakota State. He had only one FBS scholarship offer out of Nebraska's Millard North High School -- from Ohio. Last year, he led NDSU with 135 tackles, 54 more than anyone else on the team. This year, he became the only FCS player listed on the preseason Butkus Award watch list for the best linebacker in college football.

"If they are recruiting somebody, that gets our attention," Ferentz said.

DeLuca's story is not unique to the program. In fact, his single FBS scholarship offer is considered a boatload compared to so many others.

Four former North Dakota State players have been selected in the NFL draft over the past three years: offensive tackle Billy Turner, linebacker Kyle Emanuel, offensive tackle Joe Haeg and quarterback Carson Wentz. Collectively, they received a total of zero FBS scholarship offers. The Philadelphia Eagles selected Wentz with the second overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft, making him the highest-drafted player in school history.

"He's the poster child for NDSU," DeLuca said. "There's definitely some guys I think that have been overlooked by FBS schools. It gives guys like myself a chip on their shoulder, like they have something to prove. There's definitely a chance you can make it to the next level here."

Klieman has made no bones about the fact this Iowa team will be the most difficult challenge North Dakota State has faced at the FBS level. Of the Bison's five previous FBS victories, only one team (Kansas State in 2013) finished the season with a winning record. Iowa, the Big Ten West favorite, has averaged 43.5 points per game in two easy victories this fall.

The task is daunting, of course. But if any FCS team can pull it off, it's NDSU. Buyer, beware.

"They're used to going on the road and having success," Ferentz said. "And I'm sure that's their plan right now."