New kids on the block
North Dakota State, Sam Houston State vying for first FCS title
For the fourth consecutive year, the FCS will crown a new champion, but the two finalists are not just vying for the title and a trophy. North Dakota State and Sam Houston State are setting the groundwork for the future of their programs.
The Bison have a rich football tradition with eight titles at the Division II level, but are looking to make their mark as a FCS program since making the transition in 2008.
Making the jump did not come without a few mediocre seasons. The Bison went 6-5 in 2008, and only won three games in '09 before the program made its first FCS playoff appearance last season. While NDSU lost to eventual national champion Eastern Washington in the quarterfinals, the Bison knew the pieces of the puzzle were coming together to build the program into a national contender in Division I.
NDSU senior receiver Warren Holloway arrived in Fargo at the beginning of the Bison’s climb to the pinnacle of FCS football.
“When I came up here, I felt that people care about football as much as they do in Texas,” said Holloway, a native of Houston. “We’ve had good years, we’ve had bad years … sometimes we weren’t even eligible to make the playoffs. To end my career on this kind of note is a good feeling.”
Holloway is one of eight senior starters that have seen NDSU raise its level of competition during their tenure, but with 12 starting sophomores and redshirt-freshmen on the depth chart, the Bison’s run may be only beginning under seventh-year head coach Craig Bohl.
For Sam Houston State, the rise from mediocrity has been even quicker -- going from 6-5 last season to a 14-0 mark entering the FCS Championship Game. In head coach Willie Fritz's first season at the helm of the Bearkats, he had just five seniors -- and only two of those started. With almost the whole team returning this season, Fritz knew the program had potential to do great things and he told them so.
“I think we started believing that we could be really special at the end of last year when Coach Fritz brought us into a team meeting after we didn’t make the playoffs,” SHSU sophomore quarterback Brian Bell said. “It was the week of the semifinals and he talked about how teams were still playing. He wrote three words up on the board -- average (6-5), good (8-3) and great (10-1). He circled average and said that’s what we were this year boys, and he crossed out good and said we’re going to skip good and go straight to great next year. That gave us some motivation, although right at that moment we thought he was crazy.”
Fritz credits the continuity of both the coaching staff and team roster, combined with good depth and only a few injuries for the Bearkats' surge to the top. And, with so many young players at key skill positions -- Bell, sophomore running back Tim Flanders and multi-talented sophomore Richard Sincere -- Sam Houston State players may be focused on the present, but are hopeful toward the future.
“If playing for a national championship becomes a regular habit, that’s definitely a good thing,” Bell said. “That’s what we’re trying to start here -- a dynasty at Sam Houston State. We want to keep this thing rolling.”
Before any dynasties are built, Saturday’s No. 1 vs. No. 2 match-up is sure to entertain. The game features the nation's two top-scoring defenses. NDSU is giving up only 13.2 points per game, while SHSU follows closely behind at 14.8. Both squads also rank in the top five nationally in turnover margin per game (SHSU plus-2, NDSU plus-1.3).
“I think both defenses are extremely explosive,” Bohl said. “They've been excellent at creating takeaways. I really think that's going to be the balance of the game, is the turnover margin. Without question, everybody says offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships. We're going to find out who wins the championship here.”
But don’t count out the offenses. North Dakota State is on the verge of having two 1,000-yard rushers and a 1,000-yard receiver for the first time in school history, while Sam Houston State boasts the nation’s top scoring offense with 39.1 points per game while showcasing its version of the Wildcat formation.
“We'll have some wrinkles that we're going to show when we play that we haven't shown this season,” Fritz said. “They're going to do the same thing to us. They may try to play things a little bit differently than maybe they've shown in the past, whatever the case may be. It comes down to adjustments.”
No matter which team captures the trophy, the game definitely bwill e a win for the FCS. With Sam Houston State only three hours from the championship site of FC Dallas Stadium in Frisco, Texas, and North Dakota State’s rabid fan base, the NCAA announced the game was a sellout before the new year. The tournament is projected to exceed 250,000 attendees, blowing away the previous attendance record of 209,761, set in 1994.
“I think you're seeing an emerging product with FCS football,” Bohl said. “We had a huge outpouring of support during the playoff run. We sold out all our home games. The national recognition that NDSU received was outstanding. I think it's an exclamation point when you go in, it's three weeks out, and a game like this is already sold out. I think that gives a great deal of credence and how important this ballgame is to a lot of people.”
“This is going to be great where we have the stadium packed,” Fritz said. “It's a tough ticket to get. I think both teams deserve this. North Dakota has had a sensational year; so have we.”