It's been a historically long and volatile year at the FCS level. Two seasons have played out since last February, with Sam Houston topping South Dakota State to win a makeshift spring season and a mostly normal season unfolding in the fall. Conference realignment struck, taking away powerful programs in James Madison (Sun Belt in 2022), Sam Houston (Conference USA in 2023) and Jacksonville State (also C-USA in 2023) and moving lots of teams around. The transfer portal gaveth and tooketh at an increasing rate.
At the end of it all comes familiarity: On Saturday in Frisco, Texas, North Dakota State will play for its ninth national title in 11 years (noon ET on ESPN2 and the ESPN App). And the Bison will face a familiar foe in a Montana State team they beat on the way to their 2018 and 2019 titles.
This is technically a matchup of the No. 2 and No. 8 seeds in the FCS playoffs, but make no mistake: The winner will have been the strongest team in the subdivision from start to finish. North Dakota State fell only to rival (and semifinalist) South Dakota State in the regular season and beat 13 other opponents by an average of 35-10. Montana State lost narrowly to FBS' Wyoming to start the regular season and fell to rival Montana toward the end, but beat 12 others by an average of 33-12.
These teams' defenses rank first (NDSU) and second (MSU) in scoring defense and second (MSU) and third (NDSU) in my FCS SP+ rankings. MSU stuttered offensively late in the regular season, but ignited in the playoffs behind freshman quarterback Tommy Mellott, who has thrown for 449 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for 411 yards and six touchdowns in three postseason games. With Mellott rolling, the Bobcats pummeled each of last spring's finalists by a combined 83-36, while NDSU beat Southern Illinois and East Tennessee State by a combined 65-10 before surviving one last playoff slugfest against James Madison to advance to Frisco.
Here are the three key questions entering the FCS season finale.