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FCS National Championship Prediction and Preview: Montana State vs. North Dakota State

FCS National Championship Prediction and Preview: Montana State Bobcats vs. North Dakota State Bison

Montana State's first shot at a national title in nearly 40 years comes against FCS dynasty North Dakota State

They're finally back — the Montana State Bobcats are in the FCS national championship again after a 38-year hiatus.

On the flip side, North Dakota State is back in the title game, too — which for Bison fans probably seems like 24 years instead of the actual 24 months. Of course, that NDSU "drought" had as much to do with a global pandemic as it did the opposition.

Montana State (12-2) hasn't been in the FCS (then known as I-AA) national title game since it won in its lone appearance in 1984. To put that in perspective, that's when many of its current Cat players' parents were attempting to do the moonwalk to Michael Jackson music. Have no clue what I'm talking about because it was 38 years ago?

Exactly. That's my point. 

Montana State has been a strong program for the most part for the past 20-plus years, winning or sharing seven Big Sky Conference titles and making 10 FCS playoff appearances. But it hasn't reached the national title game. On the flip side, NDSU is so accustomed to making the annual trip to Frisco, many yellow and green-clad Bison fans purchase title game tickets in the summer — before the season even begins.

Supreme confidence or supreme wisdom? It's just semantics at this point.

So, we're here. The No. 1 and No. 2 scoring defenses, two top-10 running games on offense — two well-coached, black-and-blue programs overall. Two FCS/I-AA blue bloods with significant fan bases that travel well, and the first title-game trip for one of the two Montana monsters of the FCS in the Frisco era.

Montana State's two 2021 losses came by three points to a bowl-winning FBS team (Wyoming) and the Bobcats' bitter rivals to the north, Montana. NDSU's lone loss came by eight points to its bitter rival to the south (South Dakota State). Other than that? They've combined for 25 wins.

Let the show begin.

FCS National Championship: No. 8 Montana State (12-2) vs. No. 2 North Dakota State (13-1)

Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 8 at 12 p.m. ET
Where: Toyota Stadium (Frisco, Texas)
TV: ESPN2
Spread: North Dakota State -7 

When Montana State Has the Ball

This is probably the most interesting matchup of the game — the one with the most question marks. The reason? The Bobcats' surprise story of the year. For that matter, one could call it in the FCS surprise story of the year.

If freshman quarterback Tommy Mellott had been a starter all year and played like this, he undoubtedly would have won the Jerry Rice Award for the nation's top freshman. But he's only been a full-time starter since the playoffs began, though he was used as a change-of-place player under center at times during the regular season — primarily to run the ball.

And boy oh boy, has this change worked. Mellott is the wild card.

When the Bobcats knocked off South Dakota State in the national semis, they hung 31 points on the board, and Mellott passed for 233 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 155 and two scores. Yep — 388 yards accounted for and four TDs.

North Dakota State managed only 19 points in its loss at SDSU, with 380 yards of total team offense and only two offensive touchdowns. So that's something to keep an eye on.

With 1,500-yard rusher Isaiah Ifanse listed as a starter earlier this week after missing the semifinals due to injury, that's also something key to keep an eye on. As it turns out, Montana State didn't need Ifanse to win the semifinal game — but it'll need him to be a part of things on Saturday. Mellott toting the ball 34 out of 42 team carries again, as he did in the semis, doesn't sound like a recipe for success against NDSU.

And wide receiver Lance McCutcheon (1,015 yds., 7 TDs) is one heck of a weapon for the Bobcats. With Montana State being a run-first team, he could be the wild card to keep NDSU honest. Could he be the game-breaker to keep the Bison defense from just clamping down on Mellott?

Montana State's offensive line may not be considered as strong as NDSU's, but what other FCS unit is? And for that matter, how many Group of 5 and even lower-tier Power 5 teams' O-lines are? Not many, that's the answer. But the Bobcats' O-line can play some ball, and its ground production (226 ypg) proves it.

When North Dakota State Has the Ball

North Dakota State's a royal pain in the rear to prep for. Why? Because everybody can clearly see on film that trickery isn't a part of the NDSU vocabulary. There's nothing tricky about the Bison. They will never try to out-finesse you.

They don't have to. NDSU's style of doing things is so powerful that it falls under that old saying in football: You may know what's coming, but you still have to stop it. 

The run game is outstanding, but what's new? The offensive line is stout and comes at you in waves of depth that no other FCS program has — but what's new? The passing game is incredibly efficient, but it isn't critical for the Bison to throw 60 times a game to beat you — but what's new?

Nothing. They power past you and win with few hiccups. 

Cam Miller isn't Trey Lance, Easton Stick, or Carson Wentz — his three most recent predecessors who were NFL draft picks. But try telling semifinal conquest James Madison that (Miller threw two touchdowns when JMU was clearly keying on the rushing attack of NDSU. The truth is, Miller and the NDSU passing attack may not rank anywhere near the top of the FCS level in terms of passing yards — but the Bison are No. 8 in team passing efficiency. 

True, the Bison would probably prefer not to get itself in a position to have to drive 93 yards in the final minute of the game to claim a comeback win (like Wentz did in the 2014-15 win in Frisco over Illinois State). But Miller can deliver a big play here and there, as well as fellow 2021 QB starter Quincy Patterson — who has had big moments in some big-stage P5 games during his time at Virginia Tech.

The run game? What can we say — its No. 3 in the FCS and doesn't even employ one of those run-heavy, chew-up-the-clock, triple-option attacks. NDSU's run game sets the tone with more than 32 minutes of possession per game — and in the three playoff wins over Southern Illinois, ETSU, and JMU, it's been 37:45, 33:24, and 32:31, respectively. They don't strangle the clock by playing keep-away like an option attack; they suck the oxygen out of the room by continually punching their opponents in the mouth and gut without apologies.

Fullback Hunter Luepke personifies this NDSU offense. He's had a 100-yard rushing game in the semis (JMU), where he also caught two touchdown passes. He also rushed for 69 yards and a score against ETSU in the quarterfinals. He's tough, clutch — and he's just one of many offensive weapons for the Bison. Just call Luepke the "throwback" option.

NDSU will encounter a Montana State defense that is ranked No. 2 in the FCS (behind NDSU) in allowing only 13.4 points per game. The only team that scored more than 20 on the Bobcats this year was Montana in the Brawl of the Wild (29-10 loss). Even bowl-winning Wyoming couldn't score 20 (19-16 loss).

But to be fair — even Wyoming in the FBS is not nearly as strong as this NDSU team. Case in point? NDSU is No. 41 overall in the Sagarin Division I rankings (FBS/FCS combined). Wyoming is No. 86, while JMU was 68, and the Bobcats are No. 89.

Montana State also features the No. 13 rushing defense, led by the best jack-of-all-trades weapon in the FCS — Troy Andersen (137 tackles, 14 TFLs, 7 pass breakups). NFL scouts are licking their chops right now scouting Andersen. One prediction: He will shine this weekend on national television, win or lose. He's an absolute gamer.

This NDSU-Montana State matchup of O-vs.-D will settle this game. If the Bobcats can get some stops, this could get very interesting in the fourth quarter.

Final Analysis

Folks, the bottom line is that this will be a fun one. And it won't get out of hand in either direction. North Dakota State has won eight of the last 10 national title games, but it hasn't had a blowout win since 2015 against Jacksonville State. Four of its past five title wins have been interesting in the fourth quarter. This game will not be over at halftime — Montana State's too strong for that. 

Montana State head coach Brent Vigan is an NDSU product and coached there for several years — and even has a couple of national title rings earned as an assistant with the Bison. He knows their ways, and he has improved upon what former head coach Jeff Choate had already made strong before taking the defensive coordinator's job with the Texas Longhorns last year.

On the flip side? NDSU has a lot of players who've been to Frisco and won against very strong opponents. In fact, seven of NDSU's starters from December's semifinal win over James Madison started in the national title win two years ago this week in Frisco. Several of those even contributed to the win over Eastern Washington in Frisco three years ago following the 2018 season.

Montana State needs NDSU to turn the ball over to make this happen. That typically isn't a big problem for the Bison, but it can always happen in a big football game. If MSU gets two timely turnovers, this could be very interesting.

Experience will be essential in this one: On one hand, we have a QB (Tommy Mellott) who had thrown four career passes before December. He's going against an NDSU team that has guys who earned national title rings against EWU on this very field in Frisco while Mellott was in his junior year in high school.

Prediction: North Dakota State 24, Montana State 14

— Written by Brian McLaughlin, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McLaughlin has covered the FCS level since 2015 and is the former HERO Sports FCS National Coordinator. Before HERO Sports, he covered national college football recruiting for The Sporting News and compiled the PARADE All-America teams from 2010-17. He is a co-host on BMac and The Nach’s FCS Podcast each week, currently hosted on several well-known platforms like Spotify, Stitcher, etc. Follow him on Twitter @BrianMacWriter or Facebook at www.facebook.com/brianmacwriter.