It’s billed the “Mecca of FCS Football.” And after experiencing it in person, it’s hard to disagree.
Missoula is FCS at its peak (no pun intended), home to the Montana Grizzlies, a big-time stadium, a beautiful setting, great facilities, a downtown near campus that embraces the university with logos and memorabilia everywhere, and a fan base that cares and supports its team deeply.
While FCS teams along the coasts or in the south are competing for attention, Montana and Montana State football are the only shows in the state. You’re either a Bobcat or a Grizzly. And the attention of the state is locked in on the Brawl of the Wild every year.
This one had extra juice. The combination of the game not happening in 2020 due to COVID, the Griz being on a four-game losing streak to their fierce rival, playoff seeding on the line, and a Montana squad looking to show it is among the best in the FCS resulted in a rabid environment and a spirited effort by the Griz. Montana, ranked No. 7, beat No. 3 MSU 29-10 in front of 26,856 fans, an attendance record at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
Truth be told, the Fargodome at its peak in 2012-2014 remains the loudest games I’ve ever covered. But Saturday was the most noise I’ve heard at a stadium in more than five years. And the intensity was on a different level. The stands are right on top of the sidelines and close to the end zones. Along with the frenzied celebrations after big plays and the fans rarely sitting down, you got the sense that watching the game field-level could get claustrophobic at times. I was up in the press box, and while that probably didn’t give me the truest sense of the noise level, the backdrop was just perfect with the mountains in the background.
If MSU didn’t feel claustrophobic by the fan noise raining down on them, the Bobcats felt it from Montana’s suffocating and relentless defense, having less success finding an opening on the field than trying to find an open table at Mo Club at 1 p.m on a Friday. Great burgers, by the way. The Griz were all over the place defensively, flowing to the ball, closing off running lanes in a hurry, aggressive yet fundamental in their tackling. It was a masterpiece performance by the defense as the offense proved it can be a strong unit when healthy.
Montana fans knew what was at stake and what was going on around the FCS nationally, something the subdivision needs more of. Someone yelled, “Four seed, right?” at me hours after the game. The Griz ended up getting the No. 6 seed, and MSU got the No. 8 seed. Regardless, it’s good to have the stakes in this game as high as they were. The best rivalry in the FCS and its result has a significant impact on top teams across the country.
Having these two teams being nationally relevant is huge for the FCS. As well-known programs like James Madison, Sam Houston, and Jacksonville State depart for the FBS, others need to step to challenge NDSU’s dynasty. The Big Sky Conference is already challenging the Missouri Valley Football Conference as the best league in the subdivision. Now the top teams in the Big Sky need to reach NDSU’s level. Simply put, the FCS won’t be in a healthy spot if NDSU wins another eight national titles in the 2020s.
The two teams you can point to right away in the Big Sky that can enter Tier 1 of the FCS are Montana and Montana State. Both have great new facilities, awesome stadiums, fan support both in the stands and the checkbooks, and are in locations that shouldn’t be hard to recruit to.
Western Montana is gorgeous and growing, perhaps faster than some of the locals like. But when you walk around a place like downtown Missoula and experience the game-day environment, you think “this town and its people care about college football.” That’s appealing to recruits along with the shiny things, which the Griz can also show off.
Montana’s season-opening win at then-No. 20 FBS Washington is going to open a lot of avenues in recruiting in that area. Because of that win and national exposure, the Griz should get big-time recruits on campus. And once on campus and seeing what Montana has to offer and the tradition the program carries, recruits will want to be a part of that climb back into FCS supremacy. The Washington-Grizzly Champions Center right next to the stadium that houses the weight room, locker room, team room, and meeting rooms is elite. The $14 million facility opened in 2017 and was 100 percent privately funded.
Montana football has gotten flack for being considered “back” multiple times throughout the 2010s and then flaming out. “Montana is back” is the FCS version of people saying “Texas is back” after one big win at the FBS level, or ESPN saying “Tiger is back” after he starts a tournament hot.
The Griz looked to be back after beating Washington. It was one of the best FCS over FBS wins ever. But they battled injuries midseason and suffered two October losses, draining the program of any national momentum as title contenders. Now healthy again, Montana overwhelmed MSU, knocking the Bobcats from their No. 3 national rankings and potential No. 2 playoff seed.
So, are the Griz back? Is this defense as elite, and is this offense as good as it showed on Saturday? The playoffs are the time to show it. While the draw isn’t ideal, the Griz will get a shot at No. 3 JMU if they beat UNI or EWU in the second round. If the Griz beat JMU, then it would be on to No. 2 NDSU in the semifinals. Those are two FCS heavyweights Montana will get a shot at if it strings together wins in the bracket.
Whether the Griz are back or not will be determined in the bracket. But there’s no denying this — There is no reason Montana shouldn’t be back and a national factor. If not this year, then soon. A trip to Missoula confirms that the football program has everything it needs to be a power again. The FCS needs more Tier 1 teams, and Montana should be one of them much sooner than later.
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Sam’s coverage of the FCS began in 2012 as the sports editor and eventual editor-in-chief of NDSU’s The Spectrum. After graduating in 2015, he spent three years in the newspaper and magazine industry while starting his work for HERO Sports in the fall of 2016 as a freelancer. In May 2018, he joined the website full time as the Senior FCS Analyst.