FRISCO, Texas -- For teams in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, it has not been difficult to find that one game to circle on the calendar the past few years. North Dakota State has been the giant yet to be taken down, having just won a conference championship for the fourth consecutive season.
The problem for Illinois State was that when the schedule came out, that game wasn’t there to circle. With eight games on the league slate and ten teams in the conference, the Bison were the one team the Redbirds wouldn’t play in 2014.
Some might celebrate that fact, but not Illinois State coach Brock Spack. He started dreaming of a postseason meeting before the season started.As fate would have it, both teams went 7-1 in the regular season within the Missouri Valley, with both losses coming in consecutive weeks at Northern Iowa. The tie at the top of the league meant NDSU was still the conference champion, but this season it shared the title with ISU. Neither had an outright claim at being the best of what is probably the deepest conference in FCS.
“I think the Valley was rewarded this year in the playoffs for having five teams in,” North Dakota State safety Colten Heagle said. “We’ve known for the last few years that the Missouri Valley is one of the best conferences in FCS and to play a conference opponent [in the national championship] is a great thing for the conference, and I think it will be a great challenge for both teams.”
Spack thought that there was still a chance -- a good chance -- that the two would meet in in the playoffs. But he anticipated that they would probably be placed on the same side of the bracket, making a potential matchup happening before the national title game. Again, Spack was in for a surprise.
“I heard rumors that maybe the NCAA was going to put us in the same bracket,” Spack said “We felt that if we got in separate brackets, maybe this could happen. I knew they kind of thought it, and I was hoping we would be that kind of team. It turned out that we were. It’s been really fun for our league.”
North Dakota State and Illinois State will meet on Saturday at 1 p.m. ET at Toyota Stadium in Frisco. It will be the first time conference opponents have met in the FCS title game.
It’s not like either team wanted to avoid the other. They welcomed the opportunity to settle the undecided conference crown on the field. Spack and North Dakota State coach Chris Klieman have said that they told each other they were rooting for the other’s squad throughout the playoffs.
“We saw them on cross film a lot, against other opponents in our league, and marveled at the talent they had on both sides of the ball,” Klieman said. “At the time we were like, ‘Well they’re a great opponent; it would be fun to play those guys, since we both ended up 7-1.’
“Then when we saw the brackets come out, there was a chance, we thought, that a couple Valley teams could end up in the championship game and the fortunate thing is that we didn’t have to play each other in the second round.”North Dakota State’s return to the championship is not much of a surprise. The Bison have left Frisco each of the past three years with the national championship trophy, and were the preseason No. 1 this season. Klieman stepped in as new head coach from his defensive coordinator position while junior quarterback Carson Wentz replaced four-year starter Brock Jensen. They barely missed a beat en route to another trip to Frisco.
Illinois State, on the other hand, came from being mostly unknown going into the season. Five MVFC teams were ranked in the preseason coaches’ top 25, and the Redbirds were not among them. After going 5-6 in 2013, Spack knew his team had a tall mountain to climb to get to this point. Given the work the team put in over the offseason, though, he started to get a feeling that his team could be “sneaky good.” The feeling grew, both with the coaching staff and players. By the time training camp rolled around, they were already thinking about making a run to the playoffs, which would give them a chance to knock off NDSU.
“We feel real good to be in this position, to see all of the hard work we put in over the offseason finally pay off, to finally be in a position to try to win a national championship,” Illinois State safety Dontae McCoy said. “It’s been our goal since the beginning of the season.”
Leading up to Saturday’s game, Spack has often used the word “brothers” to refer to the way his team and NDSU view each other.
“It’s kind of like playing your brother in one-on-one basketball in the backyard,” Spack said. “You’re the only one that can dunk on him and take advantage of him; no one else can. You want everybody else to lose to him but you.”
Those familiar matchups in the backyard are often the most competitive. Both teams know what the other is going to throw at them on Saturday. The coaches aren’t anticipating many surprises. By the end of the game, one team will have bragging rights as the best team in the country -- and finally bragging rights as the best team from the Missouri Valley. It could very well be a Hollywood-esque ending.
“This is really exciting,” Illinois State linebacker Pat Meehan said. “It’s kind of like a movie.”