Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - It's been quite a run over the last two years for Sam Houston State and North Dakota State.
The Bison and the Bearkats quickly and convincingly proved they are both at the top of the FCS food chain. Both have stifling defenses and physical offenses, top-of-the-line athletes and head coaches who know what it takes to succeed on the way to FC Dallas Stadium in Frisco, Texas, site of the national championship on Jan. 5.
Is it really a surprise that the two teams meet yet again to play for the FCS national title?
Well, for Sam Houston State coach Willie Fritz, it's not all about comparing the two squads from last year.
"I really don't. I think when you get out there and kick the ball off, I guess it's the 2013 Bearkats against the 2013 Bison," Fritz said. "Even though we've had a lot of kids coming back and playing last year and the same thing for North Dakota State, they're two different teams and each season you kind of evolve with that team. I just think they're two veteran groups that have played a lot of big ball games, a lot of meaningful games, so the big stage isn't going to scare either team."
That big stage is certainly commonplace to NDSU. The Bison have compiled a 27-2 record over the last two years - which includes, of course, a 17-6 national title victory versus Sam Houston last season - and find themselves back in Frisco thanks to a standout junior class and a wealth of depth on defense.
"Well, last year we had certainly a more veteran football team," NDSU coach Craig Bohl said. "I think we had six starters on the team who are seniors, several were fifth-year seniors, and we had I think four or five on defense. So you know, we are not near as veteran, so the maturity level working through a playoff and making sure you're able to play at a high level every week, that's more challenging."
The defense, which has led the FCS in just about every key statistic this season, has done it even without injured safety Colten Heagle and having some new starters. Fritz is well aware just how good that unit is, especially after his team gained just 210 yards of offense one year ago in the title game.
"We can't put ourselves in a hole. I just watched last year's game this morning," Fritz said. "A couple times, you know we had some nice field position and we get a penalty here or miss a guy and, all of a sudden, a possible positive play turns into a negative play. We're just going to have to be very assignment-sound and do a good job taking care of the football. You're not going to get it all on one play very often against them, they don't give up very many big plays."
Even Bohl, the recent recipient of the 2012 Eddie Robinson Award as FCS coach of the year, realizes the difficulty both teams face, again.
"Certainly familiarity comes into play and I'm sure Coach Fritz and Sam Houston feel the same way," Bohl said. "You go through the first time and you look at your preparation and what the environment is going to be like and all the different settings. Pretty much all that is the same as what it was last year, other than we are going to wear different color jerseys and so are they.
"From that standpoint, I don't think there's any built-in advantages because we are playing a team that's been through the same experience that we have. It does feel different, but, nonetheless, it does not feel any less exciting."
It seems only fitting that Sam Houston enters the rematch seeking revenge next week, especially after surviving one of the most brutal schedules in the FCS. Included were eight regular-season away contests and matchups versus two quality FBS foes, Baylor and Texas A&M.
Even after an early 1-2 start, the Bearkats offense exploded, especially the play of quarterback Brian Bell and fellow junior running back Timothy Flanders. Fritz's squad responded well, and enters the title game winning 10 of its last 11 contests.
Plus, the defense, which has only allowed seven rushing touchdowns in 14 games this season, is strangely overlooked.
"Much has been talked about their offense and defensively you've got a lot of skill guys," Bohl said. "You've got an All-American safety who is at the point of attack. Great tackling group; I don't know if we played a better tackling defense all year long; I know we haven't. A lot of speed on defense, a lot of times that's big plays and structurally the guys are in the right spot. So you have got really good players with a lot of speed and that have good ability that are in the right spot and, as a result, that's a difficult defense to move the ball against."
Either way, for fans of college football, the FCS championship rematch should provide plenty of excitement compared to that of a non-BCS FBS bowl game.
"I think the real reason they do it (have a three-week layoff) is because of the notoriety you gain for FCS football," Fritz said. "There are not that many teams that are playing at this point in time during the year. So that I think is great. The other reason I'm so excited about the game being a sellout, I've watched a few of these games the last few weeks, there have not been very good crowds at some of the games. I think it will show people the caliber of play in FCS football."