FARGO, N.D. (AP) One month into this season, two of the top programs in the Football Championship Subdivision were facing different questions. Some wondered if North Dakota State would lose. Others were asking if Sam Houston State would win.
Now the teams are squaring off Friday night at the Fargodome with a trip to the FCS title game on the line.
The Bison (13-1) came into the year on a 24-game winning streak and stretched that to 33 before falling to Northern Iowa in the 10th game. The Bearkats (11-4) lost three of their first four games before winning 10 of their next 11, including the last eight.
''At 1-3, everybody was telling us all the problems that we had and all the ways to fix it,'' Bearkats coach K.C. Keeler said. ''I told our team, `I know your mom's going to have the answers. I know your girlfriend is going to have the answers. I know every professor in every class you have has got the answers. We have the answers here. We need to stay together.'''
The three-time defending FCS champion Bison and Bearkats have become familiar foes since the Bison moved up from Division II a decade ago. NDSU defeated Sam Houston in back-to-back FCS title games to cap the 2011 and 2012 seasons. Before that, the teams met in two wild regular season games with the Bison winning 41-38 in 2007 and Sam Houston prevailing 48-49 in 2009.
''It's definitely becoming a rivalry and that happens because both teams have done so well,'' Keeler said.
Keeler, a first-year coach who brought in more than a dozen transfers from major college programs, says the Bearkats are playing as well as any team in the division. NDSU coach Chris Klieman and Bison fullback Andrew Bonnet agree.
''They're hot right now and they're winning some tough road games,'' Klieman said.
''They really don't have any weak spots,'' Bonnet said. ''I think we're going to be throwing the playbook at them as see what works.''
Sam Houston's playoff run has included a 21-17 win over Southeastern Louisiana, a 37-26 victory over Jacksonville State and 34-31 triumph over Villanova. NDSU has been tested in its two playoffs games, a 27-24 win over South Dakota State and 39-32 victory over Coastal Carolina.
''My body is hurting,'' said Bison defensive lineman Nate Tanguay. ''But there's a big difference between your body hurting after your loss and your body hurting after a win. It hurts so good, as I like to say.''
The Bison boast the stingiest scoring defense in FCS and defensive end Kyle Emanuel earlier this week was honored with the Buck Buchanan Award that goes to the top defensive player in the division. Yet it was the NDSU offense and running back John Crockett coming to the rescue against Coastal Carolina.
Crockett rushed for a NDSU playoff record 227 yards. He scored twice, including the game-winning scamper in the fourth quarter.
''He played well. He played hard,'' said NDSU assistant coach Tyler Roehl, a former Bison running back who played in the 2007 win over Sam Houston. ''He just kind of had that look in his eye, all week along. We need that out of him in this game too. They're going to fly around the play fast.''
Keeler said Crockett has ''all the great attributes'' for a running back whose patience helps him rip off big plays.
''He's a beast,'' Keeler said. ''He's fun to watch.''