Frisco, TX – The intensity of a conference game often is unmatched in college football, but when it comes to the best teams in the Football Championship Subdivision, there can be a better way to get the juices flowing.
Does North Dakota State really get emotionally charged for Western Illinois? Maybe.
Is Nicholls a game that Sam Houston State pines for? Probably not.
True, those are wins that both teams seek on the way to conference championships. But the stakes have changed for North Dakota State and Sam Houston State, and so, too, is the way both emerging programs have come to view each other.
Their campuses in Fargo, N.D., and Huntsville, Texas, are over 1,000 miles apart, but still, they've become "rivals" - two teams that Saturday will be separated by only 60 minutes of what each hopes will be its best game of the season when they meet in the NCAA Division I Football Championship Game for a second straight year.
"Coach (Willie) Fritz has said this before, I know I've heard him say it," Sam Houston State quarterback Brian Bell said on Thursday as preparations continued to wind down before the title tilt at FC Dallas Stadium, "our programs are a lot alike. I feel like we've got a lot of respect for their program - they're class acts, a great ball team, do things the right way there. I wouldn't say I could sense a rivalry, I could sense a similarity between the two schools."
For a short-lived series, the two best teams in the FCS the last two seasons have learned how to give fans their money's worth.
North Dakota State has won two of the three all-time meetings. It's a series that started when the two schools embarked on home-and-home games in the early portion of the 2007 and '09 seasons, with each team scoring in the final 30 seconds to win at home, first the Bison, 41-38, and then Sam Houston State, 48-45.
But the new dance partners were only playing footsy at the time. The stakes were increased significantly last year with the national championship game.
The style of game changed a lot, too, when North Dakota State claimed a 17-6 defensive slugfest.
This time around, the top-ranked Bison, the Missouri Valley Conference champions, bring a 13-1 record into the fourth all-time meeting. Sam Houston State, from the Southland Conference, is 11-3.
"I remember the first one up in Fargo," NDSU 10th-year coach Craig Bohl said. "Rhett Bomar was their quarterback and they scored and there hardly was any time left. We had an outstanding quarterback, Steve Walker, who ran us back to a last-second drive. Then a couple years later, we went down to Sam Houston and it was track meet back and forth, the same deal.
"I don't know if rivalry would be the word, but in over the next several years, I think what's developed is Sam Houston State and us being back here, or Georgia Southern and us (semifinal-round opponents the last two seasons), you're seeing a couple programs emerge to play nationally, with really competitive games that are well-coached."
Fritz, in his third season at Sam Houston State, wasn't a part of either regular-season game (unlike some of his key seniors), but he's been a believer in the series the last two years.
"I hope it becomes a great rivalry because that means we're both in the playoffs every year," he said. "We've got a tremendous amount of respect for their football program."
Each team spent the past year focusing on itself - in fact, there was no other way to do it when trying to accomplish the overall goal of returning to Frisco. But the two sides kept a keen eye on what the other was doing - starting with Sam Houston State being ranked No. 1 and North Dakota State No. 2 in the preseason poll - and could afford themselves the thought of a rematch.
That day of "what if ..." has almost arrived. It's a championship game matchup that feels right - rivalry or not.
"It's hard to say it's really a rivalry," Sam Houston State All-America safety Darnell Taylor said, "but as far as them as a team and us competing against each other, I feel like we're both talented teams. They play a style that's physical, and we know that. We feel like we have a team this year that can play with them."