FARGO, N.D. – Hang on before you chalk up the Football Championship Subdivision title game as a rematch.
The coaches at North Dakota State and Sam Houston State said Thursday their teams are not carbon copies from a year ago.
"It's two new teams that are playing each other this season," Sam Houston coach Willie Fritz said. "A lot of the offense and defense and kicking game principles are the same, but there are a lot of differences that I can tell from watching the tape."
The most obvious changes were made with assistant coaches, where NDSU needed to replace its defensive coordinator and the Bearkats brought in practically a new offensive staff. Both units are even better than a year ago.
The Bison, who won last year's game 17-6, will put their top-rated defense against Sam Houston State's No. 2 scoring offense in the Jan. 5 game in Frisco, Texas.
"They are very talented. They've got very good players," Fritz said. "They're quick and fast. They play with great leverage. It's really tough to outflank them."
Fritz has succeeded in improving his team's passing game, which worked as a surprise element last year, but struggled in obvious throwing situations. The result is a more balanced offense and a quarterback, Brian Bell, who ranks 11th in FCS in passing efficiency.
"It was a little bit bumpy at the beginning of the year like it always is when you implement something new," Fritz said. "But we really took off about week four or five."
Bison coach Craig Bohl said preparing for Sam Houston State's offense is more difficult this time around.
"They have a different play caller and their quarterback is throwing the ball significantly better," Bohl said. "They've got a lot more threats. That's really going to stress our defense."
NDSU's defense features an All-American cornerback in Marcus Williams, but is spearheaded by linebackers Grant Olson and Travis Beck. Olson had a school-record 29 tackles in a playoff win over Wofford. Beck came back the next week to make 15 tackles against Georgia Southern.
"We've got to get bodies on bodies," Fritz said, referring to his team's blocking.
Last year's game was a defensive struggle that saw NDSU escape with a 235-210 edge in total offense. The Bison broke the game open with their first fake punt of the year to set up the go-ahead touchdown.
Fritz, asked about the fake punt, said it was an excellent call and the play was executed well. Then he added, "Shoot, I was trying to forget that."
Bohl has been known to pull off the occasional trick play in his tenure with NDSU. The key touchdown in this year's playoff win over South Dakota State was an end around that worked when 5-foot-7 wide receiver Ryan Smith basically hid behind his linemen.
"Having good players execute it is the most important thing. In every ballgame you always look at things to try and find an edge," Bohl said. "Certainly last year that (fake punt) proved to be a good play in the game."