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FCS championship: Breaking down South Dakota State-North Dakota State

NFL-bound tight end Tucker Kraft and South Dakota State look to push the Jackrabbits to their first FCS national title. Bailey Hillesheim/Icon Sportswire

Not every year of a dynastic run can be your best. You aren't as dominant in every moment as you are in your best moments. Some seasons are statements, some are legacy extenders.

When UCLA was winning 10 basketball titles in 12 years in the 1960s and 1970s, not every season was a 30-0 romp with an easy title game win they way 1963-64, 1966-67 and 1972-73 were. (The Bruins did have quite a few easy romps, it must be said.) Sometimes, as in John Wooden's last run in 1974-75, they had to grind. That year, they lost by 22 at Washington late in the season and had to survive two overtime games and a three-point win over Montana in the NCAAs before beating Kentucky in the final. It wasn't their very best team or season, but it was title No. 10 all the same.

On Sunday in the FCS national championship game at Frisco, Texas (2 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN App), North Dakota State will, like UCLA, go for its 10th national title in 12 seasons. Standing in the way: The Bison's biggest rival, South Dakota State.

NDSU hasn't had the same, Wooden-esque head coach for this entire period -- Craig Bohl won the first three titles, then Chris Klieman won four in five years, and Matt Entz has won the last two. But the run has been similar in other ways. Some titles were pretty easy; in 2013, for instance, the Bison went 15-0 and won four playoff games by an average score of 43-11. In 2015, they lost a couple of games early in the season but won their last five by an average of 37-7 and beat top-seeded Jacksonville State by 27 in the final. They won 39 games and three titles in a row between 2017 and 2020. They went 14-1 and won the title game by 28 last fall.

In between, however, were some grinds. They had to eke out wins by three and seven points to reach the final in 2014 and barely beat Illinois State 29-27. James Madison beat the Bison in 2016 and very nearly did the same in 2017 and 2019.

These aren't all walks in the park, and the 2022 season certainly hasn't been one either. NDSU saw a six-game and 12-year winning streak over FBS teams end at Arizona's hands in September, then lost its third straight Dakota Marker rivalry game to South Dakota State in October. The Bison eked out road wins over Southern Illinois (understandable) and Indiana State (less so). They nearly went under in a track meet against Lindsey Scott Jr. and Incarnate Word in the semifinals, needing a fourth-quarter comeback and a late fourth-down stop to survive and advance. Injuries have added up, and the defense has not been nearly as reliable as usual.

And yet, here they are again, one win from a 10th ring. They're again facing a top seed, and this time it's a rival they know better than any other. Somehow this is the first time NDSU and SDSU are playing in the title game, but everything about this feels right. Either NDSU extends its legacy or SDSU finally gets over the hump against the most fitting possible foe.