FRISCO, Texas - Montana State will play for a national title for the first time since 1984, thanks to consecutive playoff wins over the teams that met in the Football Championship Subdivision final less than eight months ago.
Now the Bobcats face North Dakota State University, which holds the record with eight FCS titles - all in the previous 10 seasons - and has never lost when making the trip from Fargo to Frisco. The Bison also ended Montana State's past two playoff appearances in 2018-19, both by lopsided margins.
"To have NDSU as our opponent ... I think our guys looked at this opportunity when it was laid out with the brackets," said first-year Montana State head coach Brent Vigen, who played tight end for the Bison during the mid-1990s, when they were competing in Division II.
Senior linebacker Troy Andersen, a starting quarterback earlier in his career who is now an FCS All-American and an NFL prospect, certainly sees it that way.
"We'd love to be the team that goes down there and beats them," Andersen said.
The Bobcats (12-2) and Montana-born breakout freshman quarterback Tommy Mellott get their shot Saturday in a matchup that will be televised by ESPN at noon Eastern, and the 12th FCS title game in a row at 20,500-seat Toyota Stadium is sold out. (There was a limited-capacity crowd of 7,840 because of COVID-19 last May at the MLS soccer stadium that is about 30 miles north of downtown Dallas.)
NDSU (13-1) won five consecutive titles in North Texas from 2011-15, and three more from 2017-19 before missing the championship game in the pandemic-altered spring season. Title-winning quarterback Trey Lance opted out of the unusual schedule to prepare for the NFL draft, where he was picked third overall by the San Francisco 49ers.
Just as Vigen is trying to do now, NDSU's Matt Entz won the national title in his head coaching debut two seasons ago in the only 16-win season in any division since Yale in 1894.
"It's much more difficult than I think people think," Entz said Friday. "All of a sudden, you're a lifelong assistant and you're kind of looking at things through maybe different colored glasses and now to be the guy in the front of the room trying to ... sell the vision every day. There is a different set of demands."
Montana State didn't even play the spring season after Vigen was hired from Wyoming in February, when Jeff Choate left to become co-defensive coordinator at Texas.
Entz oversaw the NDSU defense for four titles in five years before succeeding Chris Klieman, who left to be Kansas State's head coach. Vigen was a grad assistant for the Bison from 1998-2000 and on the staff until going with Craig Bohl in 2014 to Wyoming.
NDSU's only loss this season occurred Nov. 6 at South Dakota State - which lost to Montana State in the FCS semifinals three weeks ago, a week after the Bobcats eliminated reigning champion Sam Houston State in a quarterfinal.
The Bison take a familiar formula into their latest title shot. They have a strong rushing attack (273.6 yards per game, third among FCS teams) and a standout defense that has allowed an NCAA-low 11.2 points a game and is third in giving up only 259.7 total yards a game.
Montana State looks similar. The Bobcats are seventh at 225.5 rushing yards per game, second in scoring defense (13.4 points per game) and 13th in total defense (296.1 yards per game).
"We're built to run the ball, stop the run," Andersen said. "It's kind of old-school football a little bit."