Both Sam Houston head coach Willie Fritz and North Dakota State head coach Craig Bohl have plenty of respect for their opponent.
The Bearkats and the Bison will face off once again at FC Dallas Stadium in Frisco in the championship game. Kickoff before a second consecutive sold-out stadium is at 12 noon on Jan. 5. The game will be telecast nationally on ESPN2.
"Both programs share similar philosophies about football," Fritz said Thursday on a national NCAA teleconference with media from across the nation.
While the matchup marks only the fourth time in the history of the NCAA's FCS title game that the same two teams repeated as a opponents, both coaches agree that their teams are not carbon copies from a year ago.
"It's two new teams that are playing each other this season," Fritz said. "A lot of the offense and defense and kicking game principles are the same, but there are a lot of differences that I can tell from watching the tape."
The most obvious changes were made with assistant coaches, where NDSU needed to replace its defensive coordinator and Sam Houston State brought in practically a new offensive staff. Both units are even better than a year ago.
The Bison, who won last year's game 17-6, will put its top-rated defense against Sam Houston State's No. 2 scoring offense in the Jan. 5 game in Frisco.
"They are very talented. They've got very good players," Fritz said. "They're quick and fast. They play with great leverage. It's really tough to outflank them."
Fritz has succeeded in improving his team's passing game, which worked as a surprise element last year but struggled in obvious throwing situations. The result is a more balanced offense and a quarterback, Brian Bell, who ranks 11th in FCS in passing efficiency.
"It was a little bit bumpy at the beginning of the year like it always is when you implement something new," Fritz said. "But we really took off about week four or five."
Bohl said preparing for Sam Houston State's offense is more difficult this time around.
"They have a different play caller and their quarterback is throwing the ball significantly better," Bohl said. "They've got a lot more threats. That's really going to stress our defense."
NDSU's defense features an All-American cornerback in Marcus Williams, but is spearheaded by linebackers Grant Olson and Travis Beck. Olson had a school-record 29 tackles in a playoff win over Wofford. Beck came back the next week to record 15 tackles against Georgia Southern.
"We've got to get bodies on bodies," Fritz said, referring to his team's blocking.
Sam Houston will practice daily at Bowers Stadium while North Dakota State continues to work at the Fargodome. The Bearkats will leave Huntsville for Frisco on Wednesday afternoon, Jan. 2.