Fargo - It’s not the FCS playoffs today, although you would have a hard time convincing Bison and Grizzlies fans of that. It’s Montana versus North Dakota State, and that’s probably enough said.
For decades in separate divisions, the Steady Eddie power and the Johnny-Come-Lately kingpin of Division I FCS football will finally meet on the field in a matchup that will be watched around the country.
It’s not only a clash of No. 1 NDSU versus No. 3 Montana. It’s a battle between two of what most consider the top five teams in the history of the division.
“You can’t find a better matchup of elite FCS programs, with Montana being such a longtime national power and NDSU now the national face of the division,” said Craig Haley of The Sports Network, who covers FCS football. “It’s great for both programs and all of the FCS that they are playing each other. It’s the kind of game that draws attention beyond FCS circles.”
The Bison have won three straight titles and have a division-record 27 straight victories. The Grizzlies won two national championships and have been in seven title games. Moreover, when it comes to attendance, Montana is annually near the top in the FCS, and this year is no different.
Montana set an all-time record at Washington-Grizzly stadium last week when 26,303 saw the Grizzlies defeat the University of South Dakota.
“They have horsepower,” said USD head coach Joe Glenn, who coached Montana from 2000-02. “If you haven’t played there before, you’re missing a treat. It’s a fabulous place to play. They’ve got it going, no doubt. I’m impressed with the whole idea of college football in Missoula being a pretty big deal.”
When it comes to ranking the top five, Marshall could make a case, also. The Thundering Herd, like Montana, won two titles and reached the final game six times.
But perhaps staying power – Marshall moved to FBS in the late 1990s – works against it in this case. Seven programs have won two or more titles, with Eastern Kentucky also having won two. The last, however, was in 1982.
Earlier this week, NDSU offensive coordinator Tim Polasek went back to his notes from 2011 and 2012 playoff games when the Bison hosted Georgia Southern. He was the fullbacks/tight ends coach then, and his theme to his position group was simple: Clash of the titans.
“Georgia Southern is where we wanted to be,” Polasek said. “We have all the respect in the world for Montana not only because they’re a good team but because of their history. They’ve done it at a high level, and they’ve stayed there.”
The Grizzlies won national titles in 1995 and 2001 when the division was arguably deeper in talent. Youngstown State, with Jim Tressel as the head coach, was at its peak winning four titles in the 1990s.
Georgia Southern was a perennial finalist winning back-to-back championships in 1999 and 2000.
Appalachian State burst onto the scene in the ensuing decade, winning three straight from 2005-07. In that regard, NDSU is a relative newcomer to FCS supremacy, but the Bison earned distinction with three straight championships and the record winning streak.
Like Montana and Washington-Grizzly, NDSU has turned Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome into a hostile home atmosphere. When it comes to FCS, very few programs can say that.
Finding a ticket these days for Bison games is not easy.
“Their fan bases are the most passionate in all the FCS, and both sides should have the ultimate respect for what the other has accomplished,” Haley said.
Montana is one of the few visitors to the Fargodome that knows what preparing for a noisy stadium is all about. Washington-Grizzly can bring the decibels.
There’s also a built-in advantage in that there’s not much NFL competition for fans. Both Fargo and Missoula are similar in their geography. NDSU and Montana get most of the attention in each community.
The nearest professional football franchise to Fargo is Minneapolis (240 miles) and the closest to Missoula is Seattle (475 miles).
So sit back – or go crazy – and revel in the Bison vs. Griz.
“I think it’s a dream-type of matchup,” said Montana head coach Mick Delaney. “If you don’t enjoy this experience or get excited about this experience, you’re not a college football fan.”