There were no easy roads to Chattanooga this season.
For the first time since 1996, the top two seeds in the FCS playoffs advanced to the championship game. But No. 1 Montana and No. 2 Villanova had to earn their title shots Friday night at Finley Stadium.
"This team has the ability to dig deep," Villanova coach Andy Talley said after the Wildcats beat William & Mary 14-13 in the semifinals last Friday night. "I have never had a team as gritty as this group."
Montana coach Bobby Hauck could say the same about his bunch, which arrives in Chattanooga unbeaten, but far from untested.
The Grizzlies (14-0) survived a massive first-round scare against South Dakota State, which led 41-14 with 11:15 to play in the third quarter before Montana mounted an epic comeback, prevailing 61-48.
Montana kept that momentum going in the quarterfinals and shredded Stephen F. Austin 51-0 to set up a much-anticipated semifinal game against Appalachian State on Saturday.
With a crowd of 24,207 looking on, and weathering a frigid, snowy afternoon at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, the two FCS powers went back and forth all the way to the end. On the final play of the game, Appalachian State quarterback Armanti Edwards' pass to Brian Quick from the 3-yard line fell incomplete at the goal line.
The Grizzlies held on for a 24-17 win and advanced to the title game for the second year in a row and seventh time since their first appearance in 1995.
"Watching that scene after the game, that's as good as it gets," Hauck said afterward. "I've coached for a long time now ... and that's as good as it gets in college football. It was national television, in a whiteout blizzard and the place is going crazy. It was an insane celebration after the game."
While the Grizzlies were able to celebrate a return trip to Chattanooga, Villanova (13-1) celebrated its first title game appearance the night before.
The Wildcats were tested in the first round, beating Holy Cross 38-28, and then surprised many by whipping New Hampshire, which handed Villanova it's only loss during the regular season, 46-7 in the quarterfinals.
That set up another Colonial Athletic Association rematch in the semis, against William & Mary. Both teams were vying for their first trip to Chattanooga and the Tribe appeared to be on the way after dominating the first half, though the score was just 10-0.
The second half belonged to Villanova, which had a crowd of just 4,171 on hand. Down 13-7 in the fourth quarter, quarterback Chris Whitney bounced outside on fourth down from the Tribe 1 for a touchdown and Nick Yako's extra point proved to be the game-winner.
"I knew that if I stepped up outside there wouldn't be anybody there," Whitney said.
It's exam week at both schools, so playbooks won't be the only things the Grizzlies and Wildcats will be studying during their time in town this week.
"I hope the professors and the school realize what we're going through, and I feel that they do," Villanova safety Ross Ventrone said Sunday. "They are being very understanding and flexible with everybody's schedule. I think they are allowing us to focus as much as possible on football as we can without letting football and school get in the way of each other."
Montana, meanwhile, has to deal with exams, a cross-country flight and because it played Saturday it has one less day to recover from the semis and prepare for the Wildcats.
"It's kind of a nightmare for us," Hauck said last week, "but we'll make the best of it and be ready to play."