The Montana Grizzlies face a monumental assignment in the 2023 FCS championship game:

Rewrite history.

If South Dakota State wins a second consecutive national title on Jan. 7 in Frisco, Texas, the conversation will shift to where the Jackrabbits rank among the best teams in FCS history.

There’s a big difference, however, between SDSU going back-to-back and extending a 28-game winning streak – the third-longest in FCS history – and following up the 2022 title with a runner-up finish.

By upsetting the No. 1-ranked, 14-0 juggernaut, Montana’s storied program would become the fifth in FCS history to claim a third national championship. The No. 2 Grizzlies (13-1), considered double-digit underdogs, are making their first appearance in the title game since 2009, while SDSU has advanced to the final for the third time in the last four seasons.

The Grizzlies relish the opportunity.

“I think our entire team has just done a good job improving throughout the entire season,” senior linebacker Braxton Hill said. “If you look at our first game against Butler to our last game against North Dakota State, we look like a different team.”

Photo Credit: Montana Athletics

This season’s Montana squad wasn’t necessarily supposed to be the one playing in the FCS season’s final game – it could have occurred with the two previous squads.

In 2021, the Grizzlies were ninth-ranked in the preseason and reached the national quarterfinals. Entering last season, they were No. 3 and carrying even bigger expectations, but were eliminated in the round of 16.

Before this season, they were No. 14 nationally, yet picked sixth in the Big Sky Conference’s preseason coaches poll (the media poll had the Grizzlies third).

“The first thing that comes to my mind is we’ve stayed healthier and we’ve been more mature up front on offense, so we’ve been able to handle some of the better defensive lines, some of the better defenses a little better,” coach Bobby Hauck said.

“Each of the last two teams – ’21 and ’22 – had the potential to be where we’re sitting now and weren’t able to get there. Last year in particular, I think it was a matter of we played, I don’t know, four of the top five on the road over a six-week span. That’s a tall task, especially when your team was as injured as we were.”

Montana entered the 2023 campaign with only six of the 14 players who earned a form of All-Big Sky honors last season, so surprises have occurred with the Big Sky champion. Included: transfer Clifton McDowell became the starting quarterback after four games and has directed a 10-game winning streak; redshirt freshman Eli Gillman has led the team in rushing and become the Jerry Rice Award recipient; and defensive backs Ryder Meyer and Trevin Gradney have gone from being reserves to standouts.

There were known quantities, however, and they’re helping to lead the way: Hill paces the defense in tackles; defensive tackle Alex Gubner is the Big Sky defensive player of the year; and Junior Bergen remains one of the nation’s top all-purpose threats. Tackles Brandon Casey and Chris Walker and center AJ Forbes have anchored an experienced O-line.  

It also helps to have Hauck’s determined coaching style. He led Montana to national runner-up finishes in 2004, ’08 and ’09, then departed to become UNLV’s head coach. He returned before the 2018 season, and now, completing his 13th season with the Griz, has become the Big Sky’s all-time wins leader (129).

“We’ve played in a lot of big games over the past few seasons,” he said. “I think a lot of the games that we’ve played in have prepared us for this game, even in recent weeks – top, highly ranked teams, huge games.”

Said South Dakota State coach Jimmy Rogers: “They’re really a well-coached football team. I think that’s been proven over the years of Coach’s tenure there.

“They’re a resilient group. They’re had multiple games where they’ve battled to the wire and they figure out a way to win. That right there is in itself a sign of a championship program.”