(STATS) - There are some big unknowns surrounding the two most well-known programs in the FCS as they prepare to usher in the 2015 college football season with the FCS Kickoff on Saturday.
North Dakota State brings a record four consecutive FCS championships into the marquee opener at Montana, whose Grizzlies have appeared in more national championship games than any other current FCS program.
In a role reversal, NDSU's offense is ahead of the Bison defense, which returns only four returning starters and needs to prove it will answer the call under fire. With Montana, it's all new as Bob Stitt makes his head coaching debut with the Grizzlies, who must prove the transition period will be smooth.
Still, the unknown should not keep top-ranked NDSU and No. 13 Montana from impressing a sellout crowd at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula and a national TV audience (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).
"I'm as interested as everybody else is to see how some of these young guys that have not had those snaps in those critical big games respond," NDSU second-year coach Chris Klieman said. "And I hope some of our senior leadership and a lot of veterans on our team can kind of calm those guys down in an unbelievable environment to just go out and play."
"You're anxious and you're excited," said Stitt, who has arrived from a 15-year stint coaching Division II Colorado School of Mines. "I talked to the team about it and you're not gonna be nervous when you're prepared. You're just ready to go. People that are nervous are unsure. We're ready to go and we're prepared."
The buildup to the first game in all of college football has been extraordinary as it gives a spotlight to the FCS and the two national powers. They met last season in Fargo, North Dakota, with NDSU winning 22-10 en route to a 15-1 season, capped by a win over fellow Missouri Valley Conference champion Illinois State in the national championship game. Montana, which won national titles in 1995 and 2001 and was the runner-up five other times, also reached last year's playoffs in a 9-5 season, tying for second place in the Big Sky Conference.
NDSU has built its dynasty upon a suffocating defense - as Montana saw firsthand last season - but the unit is more inexperienced for the Bison's "Drive for Five."
Their defense's returning starters are cornerbacks Jordan Champion and C.J. Smith and interior linemen Nate Tanguay and Brian Schaetz. The Bison lost their top five tacklers, including the national defensive player of the year in end Kyle Emanuel, but expects new standouts to emerge with the likes of linebacker Nick DeLuca and end Brad Ambrosius, a pair of juniors.
"It's been unique," Klieman said. "Obviously, you see (at) the practices just so much more continuity on offense because all of those kids played together with the exception of (graduated running back John) Crockett and (graduated center) Jesse Hinz that were a part of it. So it's fun for me to watch the defense, a bunch of young guys that I think have a lot of talent come together. And we'll find out how we do on Saturday. I don't know, there's going to be some new guys that are gonna make some plays and we're gonna be surprised by it, and there's gonna be some new guys that maybe aren't quite ready.
"Every year presents new challenges and this one just happens to be on the defensive side."
Montana's 4-3 defense has considerable experience with eight starters who are fourth- or fifth-year seniors. It's the Grizzlies' new fast-paced offense that seeks continuity as they will try to run as many plays as possible to keep the Bison from adjusting into different packages.
Stitt is considered an offensive innovator and known for developing the fly sweep, a play in which the quarterback will take a shotgun snap and flip the ball to a wide receiver who is motioning across the formation in a dead sprint.
Montana will utilize formations of four wide receivers, led by All-Big Sky standouts Jamaal Jones and Ellis Henderson. The Griz's new starting quarterback, redshirt junior Brady Gustafson, is untested, but considered a good decision-maker, and he's one of the rare signal callers who is bigger (6-foot-7, 235 pounds) than NDSU counterpart Carson Wentz (6-6, 235), the Most Outstanding Player in the 2014 FCS championship game.
"If you go fast, it doesn't allow them to substitute with different personnel," Stitt explained his team's offense. "They can't get into their nickel-and-dime situations. In 3rd-and-long, they'll have a tough time keeping those guys on the field. And once you start going fast, they're not able to make their calls, and you get a little bit more of a vanilla defense. And also you wear down the defense. You just don't get as aggressive a defense and you get less defensive looks when you're going fast."
An eye-turning non-conference matchup like NDSU-Montana isn't the norm across the FCS - a fan's delight and perhaps a losing team's lament - and especially rare for a first game. But, as Klieman says, "By no means is this going to define the season for either program. I think it's a great test to find out what you need to work on, what's your strengths and weaknesses are."
FCS GAME OF THE WEEK=
The Matchup: No. 1 North Dakota State (0-0) at No. 13 Montana (0-0)
3:30 p.m. ET Saturday (ESPN), Washington-Grizzly Stadium
The Series: NDSU leads, 4-3 (most recent meeting: NDSU won, 22-10, last Sept. 20 in Fargo, North Dakota)
The Skinny: Smoke from the wildfires in western Montana have been in the Missoula-area sky. While conditions are expected to be safe at Washington-Grizzly Stadium for the FCS Kickoff, plenty of smoke also has developed from the most anticipated non-conference matchup of the season. During NDSU's dynasty, the offense has overshadowed the defense, but this season the offense will be among the nation's best with a balanced power run game following an exceptional offensive line and quarterback Carson Wentz connecting with wide receivers Zach Vraa and RJ Urzendowski. New Montana coach Bob Stitt's offenses usually had excellent execution during his 15 years at Division II Colorado School of Mines (13 winning seasons), so the Grizzlies hope QB Brady Gustafson will have a quick grasp of the fast-paced attack and find weaknesses in the NDSU defense. Griz linebackers Jeremiah Kose and Kendrick Van Ackeren had game-high tackle totals in last year's matchup.
Prediction: North Dakota State will have more continuity with its offense, winning the battle in the trenches and then the game, 30-20.
Craig Haley's FCS Prediction Records: Last Season: 645-193 (.770); 2013: 636-222 (.741); 2012: 580-187 (.756); 2011: 590-203 (.744); 2010: 590-186 (.760)