Part of The Analyst’s FCS series called “By the Numbers,” which analyzes data to help tell the story of FCS college football.

Anyone who follows the sport of football has heard it: The game truly revolves around the big guys up front.

Sometimes they’re referred to as the “big uglies,” but there’s nothing ugly about what they bring to the sport. While quarterbacks, receivers and defensive backs get the attention and seem to make all the big plays, nine of the 10 plays in between the highlight-reel material are the meat-and-potatoes plays that make up football.

When it comes to the FCS, is it any big surprise that some of the top programs at this level also happen to have some of the best collective offensive line units?

Montana State, North Dakota State and South Dakota State are all playing in December, and one of the biggest reasons for it is they don’t hide what they do well – owning the line of scrimmage. When it comes to the offensive line specifically, they have performed well in 2023, with no major injury issues.

That’s a recipe for success.

How do they stack up nationally as a line? The answer probably won’t surprise their fans heading into the second round of the playoffs, as North Dakota State, the nine-time FCS champion since 2010 and 2022 national runner-up, gets set to play at Montana State, which is at least a national semifinalist in each of its last three seasons, and 2022 national champion South Dakota State readies for hosting Mercer.

Take a look:

Montana State Bobcats

Offensive Line Coach: Al Johnson

The Wall: LT Conner Moore, LG Rush Reimer, C Justus Perkins, RG Omar Aigbedion, RT Marcus Wehr

Rushing Yards Per Game: 293.7 yards per game (No. 2 ranking in the FCS behind Davidson at 309.2)

Sacks Allowed: 0.73 per game (eight total in 11 games – tied for sixth nationally)

Third-Down Conversion Rate: 45.1% (17th nationally)

The Block: The Big Sky Conference is arguably the top overall league in the FCS this year, and MSU owned the postseason accolades when it came to the O-line. Reimer and Wehr – two veterans up front – were named first-team All-Big Sky, Aigbedion was named to the second team, Perkins was an honorable mention selection, and Moore was the only O-lineman nominated for the Jerry Rice Award (top national freshman). That’s right, all five O-linemen received major postseason accolades. The Bobcats come into Saturday’s matchup at home with North Dakota State hoping to continue that dominance.

North Dakota State Bison

Offensive Line Coach: Dan Larson

The Wall: LT Jalen Sundell, LG Mason Miller, C Brandon Westburg, RG Jake Kubas, RT Grey Zabel

Rushing Yards Per Game: 240.2 yards per game (No. 4 ranking in the FCS)

Sacks Allowed: 1.00 per game (12 total in 12 games – tied for 11th nationally)

Third-Down Conversion Rate: 51.0% (third nationally)

The Block: North Dakota State hasn’t dominated this year like it usually beats up on the FCS, but, hey, the Bison are still here with a chance to make the national quarterfinals for the 14th straight season. The big guys up front will play a big role in that should the Bison pull off a road win. Currently, there are 11 NDSU players listed on NFL rosters, and five are offensive linemen. Add in Sundell is considered a potential draft pick after this season, and you realize this is a program that knows what it is doing when it comes to O-linemen. In December, two things come to mind – the holidays and, in football, tough-nosed play on the line of scrimmage. Finesse dominates September, not December.

South Dakota State Jackrabbits

Offensive Line Coach: Ryan Olson

The Wall: LT Garret Greenfield, LG Mason McCormick, C Gus Miller, RG Evan Beerntsen, RT John O’Brian

Rushing Yards Per Game: 219.9 yards per game (No. 9 ranking in the FCS)

Sacks Allowed: 0.73 per game (eight total in 11 games – tied for sixth nationally)

Third-Down Conversion Rate: 55.4% (first nationally)

The Block: South Dakota State has won 25 games in a row and the guys up front are a big reason for that. The defending national champions have bullied their way through a brutal schedule, knocking off Montana State in the non-conference slate and then going undefeated in Missouri Valley Football Conference play (8-0) for the second consecutive season (in comparison, North Dakota State was unbeaten in the MVFC only three times while winning 10 titles between 2011-21). Only two teams (Montana State and playoff participant Southern Illinois) have come within a touchdown of the Jackrabbits, and it all begins with what they’ve accomplished on the O-line.