The North Dakota State Bison and their fans owned Frisco, Texas, for five straight championship seasons, not only on the football field but in area hotels, restaurants and sports bars. Now returning after a one-year interruption, the Bison will find suburban Dallas a bit more crowded.
The top-seeded and defending champion James Madison (14-0) and the No. 2-seeded Bison (13-1) will square off Saturday for the Football Championship Subdivision title in a matchup of the dominant FCS programs with well-traveled contingents. Dukes coach Mike Houston has described the quest for tickets as a contest in itself.
Fans are in "a fight right now for every ticket that's out there," Houston said.
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It's the first time since 2011 and the first time since the FCS playoff field expanded to 24 teams that the top two seeds will face one another in the title game. Their resumes in the last half-dozen years include the two longest winning streaks in FCS. The Bison won a record 33 straight games between 2012 and 2014. The Dukes are currently riding a 26-game winning streak.
Houston, who last month signed a 10-year contract extension with James Madison, unabashedly said on the way to the top that he was building his team to beat the Bison, and that's what the Dukes did last year in the FCS semifinals. Houston said the win gave his team respect for North Dakota State's program and confidence it had reached its level. Asked what he could take from that game, Bison coach Chris Klieman said, "Nothing, really."
"We just watched the film and decided what we liked and didn't like ... and moved on," Klieman said.
This year the teams seem evenly matched in all phases, including the presence of two veteran quarterbacks who have combined to win 62 games. Junior Easton Stick is 33-3 as a starter for the Bison. Senior Bryan Schor is 29-3 in his career with the Dukes.
"Both players, I think their teams know how valuable they are," Klieman said about Stick and Schor.
Both teams have moved on from a rash of injuries. The Dukes kept on rolling despite being particularly hard-hit on their offensive line. The Bison saw four of their top five running backs go down and lost their two starting cornerbacks in the playoffs. Klieman said the first step in overcoming injuries is expecting them to happen.
"That's just the nature of football. You're going to have guys injured," Klieman said. "Nobody wants that. I hope we're at our best, I hope JMU is at their best. But that's the reality and both teams have lost guys for the season."
Thanks in part to the three-week break between the semifinals and finals, some of those injured players could see action on Saturday.
North Dakota State standout defensive tackle Nate Tanguay said his advice to his younger teammates during championship week is to "lock in" during practices and meetings, but relax and enjoy the flurry of activities that includes meeting with former Bison football players and an annual bowling tournament.
"Hey, take it all in, because this could be taken away in an instant," said Tanguay, who suffered a season-ending knee injury late in the 2016 campaign.
One person happy to be taking in Bison fans is Robert Verich, an owner and general manager of Tight Ends Sports Bar and Grill, a 450-seat watering hole in Plano with 42 TVs and 118 employees. He said the difference in his sales from 2017 to 2016 was "the Bison week," or lack thereof.
"If you take the busiest day we've ever had, it doesn't compare to when the Bison are here. And we're busy. We're one of the most popular places in the state of Texas," Verich said. "What a great way to start the year. Imagine having a week where you can double your income for everybody."