ST. PAUL, Minn. -- St. Thomas still doesn’t know what its first Division I football schedule will look like this fall, but the school on Monday announced nonconference agreements with North Dakota, Northern Iowa and South Dakota.

The Tommies, approved by the NCAA last July to move from Division III to Division I, are scheduled to play a Sept. 18 game against Northern Iowa at the UNI Dome in Cedar Falls, Iowa. The Panthers will play in St. Paul on Sept. 7, 2024.

The Panthers finished last season with a 10-5 record in the powerful FSC Missouri Valley Conference and ranked No. 5 in the Football Championship Subdivision coaches poll.

“I’ve been able to watch a lot of great teams throughout my time and I thoroughly believe you build your culture by playing the best competition and keeping the best company — the guys we want to attract to the locker room, the teams we want to play,” Tommies coach Glenn Caruso said. “I’m a big believer that iron sharpens iron.”

The Tommies also announced road games against the University of South Dakota on Sept. 9, 2023, in Vermillion, and the University of North Dakota on Sept. 5, 2026, in Grand Forks.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

“These teams represent some of the best at the FCS level, both in competition and game-day experience, providing an opportunity to continue the great Tommie Football legacy,” athletics director Phil Esten said in a statement. “We’re thankful for these opportunities, and we look forward to establishing new traditions.”

The Tommies have been a remarkably successful Division III program in 13 seasons under Caruso, winning seven Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletics Conference championships and NCAA tournament bids, and making two appearances in the Division III championship Stagg Bowl in Salem, Va. Under Caruso, the Tommies are 126-21, and at one point won 34 consecutive MIAC games.

But FCS teams will be a big step up; the nation’s best, such as three-time defending champion North Dakota State, routinely beat Power 5 schools in nonconference games. Caruso earned a Master’s degree at NDSU and was the team’s tight end coach, running backs coach and offensive coordinator during seven years (1997-2003) on the coaching staff.

“There’s still a ton to be done,” Caruso said, “but there has been a process over the years, and this might sound like a coach talking, but I swear the process of how we do things at St. Thomas has always been at the forefront of how we’ve done things for the past 13 years. To me, this is like when we came here after a 2-8 season (in 2007). It’s the same thing.

“Yes, there’s no question we pay attention to what happens on the field, but I also know if your focus is on the process, the rest will take care of itself.”

St. Thomas will begin its Division I era in the Pioneer Football League, a non-scholarship conference of schools closely resembling its enrollment of 5,945: Butler, Davidson, Drake, Dayton, Marist, Morehead State, Presbyterian, San Diego, Stetson and Valparaiso. This fall, they will play an eight-game conference scheduled yet to be released.

The PFL currently is playing a six-game spring schedule, something St. Thomas is hoping to do. The Tommies’ final season MIAC season, including its annual rivalry game against St. John’s, was wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic. They haven’t played since a 17-7 victory over Bethel on Nov. 6, 2019.

“If you want to play games badly enough and find competition this spring, you’re going to find safe and healthy ways to do that in a timely manner,” Caruso said, “I know I have 110 players in the locker room who are champing at the bit to play.”