September is a uniquely fun times for college football fans. The new season is widely kicking off around the country and there are several matchups fans don’t get to see every day. Such will be the case in Missoula, Montana on September 16 when the Montana Grizzlies, members of the Big Sky Conference, will play host to Division II’s Ferris State Bulldogs. Now, it is not atypical for FCS programs to host non-DI opponents. In fact, it’s happening 57 times this year. What is atypical is the caliber of opponent UM will see.
Nine times out of ten, when an FCS school welcomes in a program from a lower level, the expected result happens. Just ask NAIA’s Warner Royals who got decimated by Stephen F. Austin 98-0 last year. These contests, outside of a payday for the little guy, are largely unimportant in the grand scheme of things. The playoff committee doesn’t even factor wins over non-Division I teams into their final decisions at season’s end.
So why does this game in particular jump off the page and why should fans even care?
Neither Montana nor Ferris State are run-of-the-mill teams when it comes to their respective levels of play. The Grizzlies, while having struggled to make national waves as of late, are historically one of the best and most storied FCS programs out there. Participants in seven national championships since 1995, the Griz have two trophies in the case and boast the most playoff trips of any school in the subdivision. In the 2000s it was almost a given that UM would make a deep run in the postseason. Not to mention Montana flexes perhaps the best homefield advantage in the country in the always-deafening Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
That venue has seen many, many big time opponents and moments throughout its years and now it’s getting ready to open its doors to the most dominant squad Division II ball has seen in quite some time. Ferris State, often described as the “North Dakota State of Division II” has a very decorated past of their own. The Bulldogs have competed in three of the last four national championships, winning the last two both in dominant fashion. Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that Ferris has lost just five games since 2017. The Bulldogs rank among the country’s best teams (at any level) with eight consecutive seasons of 11 or more wins.
It should also be noted that Ferris, as dominant as it is, doesn’t often square off with DI opponents. The last time they did they clashed with one of the best teams to ever grace an FCS field with the 2013 North Dakota State unit led by Carson Wentz. The Bison, expectedly, won that game in a rout 56-10.
The Bulldogs, however, are happening to catch Montana coming into a season of uncertainty after losing several of its star players to graduation. Household names, especially on defense, like Justin Ford, Patrick O’Connell and the program’s all-time tackle leader Robby Hauck are no longer around. Neither of last year’s main signal-callers are there either. Transfer Lucas Johnson is departed as did the promising youngster Daniel Britt who has a new home with Big Sky-rival Northern Arizona.
Ferris State, meanwhile, returns several key pieces from last year’s championship team and looks as strong as ever. Quarterback Carson Gulker, who set a school record for rushing touchdowns last year (29), is back as are several members of a defensive unit that averaged over four sacks per game in 2022.
None of this is to say that Montana will lose to Ferris because they very likely won’t. It’s uncommon for FCS teams to drop games to non-DI teams and it's especially uncommon for teams like the Grizzlies to do so. Montana should handle business here. At the very least, though, it is admirable to see teams like Ferris not only punch up but punch up this high.
The Grizzlies will surely enter this game as a favorite and rightfully so. Few FCS programs in the nation have the resources and overall talent year in and year out that UM does. Fans in Missoula, though, may very well be watching a future FCS team on the other sideline in Week 3. The Bulldogs are on a trajectory that might lead to DI opportunities down the road and their performance against UM could even play a small part in that.
Don't skip over this one.