At every turn in the days leading up to the NCAA Division I Football Championship Game, North Dakota State running back D.J. McNorton seemed to be wearing a baseball cap.
His favorite cap might be his newest one. It commemorates the FCS national title the Bison secured on Saturday with a 17-6 win over Sam Houston State in the championship game.
There's room for others to be dressed for success next season. In fact, in looking ahead, it's Sam Houston State, not the new champion Bison, that appears best positioned for a national title run.
In no way will NDSU fall far after a 14-1 campaign in which it lost only by a field goal to Youngstown State. But McNorton is part an excellent group of seniors who will be leaving the program, which will make it tough for the Bison to win back-to-back titles.
Sam Houston State, with its younger roster, might even be the preseason favorite nationally, although the likes of Georgia Southern and Montana, this year's other semifinalists, will be in the mix, too.
NDSU head coach Craig Bohl, who has done a masterful job with his program, realizes what it will take for the Bison to remain as an FCS elite. The tough part will be doing it.
"Part of these victories often are very slim," he said. "It's about the process."
The upcoming offseason will be particularly important as the Bison try to replace 11 seniors, including both kickers, who started in the FCS championship game. The influential group included McNorton, a two-time 1,000- yard rusher; 1,000-yard wide receiver Warren Holloway; 6-foot-7 tight end Matt Veldman; Paul Cornick and Austin Richard, the anchors on the offensive line; defensive end Coulter Boyer; and linebackers Chad Willson and Preston Evans, the team's leading tacklers.
Next season's offensive leader will be junior quarterback Brock Jensen as he steps into his third season as a starter. Sam Ojuri also will be back after a sophomore season in which he was the team's rushing leader.
The defense will have a good rotation on its big line and the secondary will be among the nation's best with returning starters Marcus Williams, an All- America cornerback, Christian Dudzik and Colten Heagle. The one returning starting linebacker, Travis Beck, was the Most Outstanding Player in the national championship game.
Sam Houston State head coach Willie Fritz has fewer concerns with his lineup heading into the offseason. His players will use the bad taste of Saturday's end to a perfect season as their motivation.
The Bearkats started only four seniors against NDSU and have few holes other than the loss of Chris Crockett and Travis Watson on their offensive line.
Show-stopping running back Timothy Flanders will lead the Sam Houston State's bevy of skills position threats. Although NDSU exposed the shortcomings of the Bearkats' offense, Richard Sincere's weak championship game was more the exception than the rule and quarterback Brian Bell will keep getting better as a junior.
The Bearkats' quick 4-2-5 defense basically is losing only linebackers David Kash and Will Henry. It will feature a secondary that compares with NDSU's with safeties Darnell Taylor and Kenneth Jenkins and cornerbacks Daxton Swanson and Bookie Sneed, and all the key players up front will be back.
The Bearkats have brought in key transfers under Fritz, so it's likely another one or two are on the way.
Barring key injuries, Sam Houston State should roll through the Southland Conference again.
Meanwhile, NDSU must contend with a Missouri Valley Football Conference that is coming off a particularly strong season and should be even stronger next season with the likes of Illinois State, Indiana State and Youngstown State challenging for the top spots alongside the Bison and Northern Iowa.