UND's football program faces added challenges associated with conference change
GRAND FORKS - For more than eight decades, the University of North Dakota had a comfort zone with the North Central Conference. Few secrets existed in the NCC and UND pretty much knew what to expect every game, every season.
GRAND FORKS - For more than eight decades, the University of North Dakota had a comfort zone with the North Central Conference. Few secrets existed in the NCC and UND pretty much knew what to expect every game, every season. Then came UND's move to Division I and the Great West Conference - a football league that lasted less than a decade
Still, UND had started to develop a rhythm and an identity with Great West teams before the league dissolved.
The Big Sky Conference is now on the horizon for UND, which is roughly three weeks away from opening one of its most anticipated seasons in school history.
UND doesn't have much of a comfort zone, a lot of knowledge or considerable experience with the Big Sky Conference.
But the unknown of what to expect wasn't a factor Monday during UND's annual media day at the Alerus Center.
"You don't have the intimate knowledge of some of the Big Sky teams like we did with the Southern Utahs of the world, but it's a level playing field," UND coach Chris Mussman said. "On the other hand, Portland State doesn't know much about us.
"Our coaches are good at breaking down film and devising game plans. But so are other coaches in the Big Sky. It'll be fun to get to know each other and build relationships like we did with the Great West. There probably will be some difficulties early, but we're all on the same page."
And that's all UND wants as it faces perhaps its most challenging season in program history.
Senior defensive lineman Ross Brenneman said UND's experience of playing four years of Division I competition will help the program as it enters the Big Sky.
His first collegiate game came at Texas Tech in 2009. And Brenneman said he can draw a parallel from that game to UND's move to the Big Sky
"The environments (in the Big Sky) won't be like it was at Texas Tech," Brenneman said. "But I remember my eyes were big (at Texas Tech) and I was thinking, 'I just hope it goes well.' Now, when I line up, I think guys are going to have to block me."
UND will bring an experienced team into the Big Sky. Eight starters return on offense and five are back on defense. Brenneman hopes that experience will be to UND's advantage during its first season in the Big Sky.
"Whenever you play a team for the first time, it presents a challenge," Brenneman said. "It's always difficult to gauge a team's style of play if you haven't played them before. You can watch as much tape as you want, but until you take that first snap it's difficult to see how things will really go.
"We're the new guys in the league. Everybody wants us to settle into our place. We want our place to be at the top but we'll have to fight and claw to get that."
As the new kid on the block, UND senior running back Mitch Sutton said the program will have to have a heightened sense of awareness.
"It's good not to be in a comfort zone so when something does go wrong, you're not like, 'What are we going to do?' " Sutton said.
Brenneman and Sutton are two of 17 seniors, players that have a chance to produce UND's first trip to the Division I FCS playoffs.
Nelson is the sports editor for the Grand Forks Herald