George Ferguson Column: College football getting bigger and better in Montana
There have been many great days of football in Montana over the years. But have there been many like last Saturday?
In a span of just under five hours, the state of Montana had three college football playoff games going at once. And no one's surprise, all three were winners. In an era when places like Florida and California get all the publicity for having the best college football around, I don't think any of those states could have competed with Montana last Saturday. Florida's reputation certainly is well-deserved, but this season, for the first time in over 50 years, Florida, Florida State and Miami were all out of the AP Top 25 at the same time.
But in Montana last Saturday, the Montana Grizzlies were ranked fifth in the Football Championship Subdivision, the Montana State Bobcats were ranked seventh, and Carroll College is ranked No. 2 in NAIA. I challenge any state to put up that kind of firepower, especially considering Montana is not considered a hot-bed for the sport.
And not only were all three teams playing in the postseason Saturday, at roughly the same time, they were all winning.
Let's start with the Saints because their game ended first.
While Carroll is a natural rival of Montana State University-Northern, it's impossible for me not to respect what that program has done. I get to see the Saints, usually on more than one occasion year-and-year-out, and I'll admit, back in September, I wasn't sure this version of Carroll football was good enough to be where they were on Saturday. But they proved me wrong and where they were on Saturday was very familiar territory. The Saints crushed Georgetown of Kentucky to advance to yet another NAIA national championship game.
I guess, at this point I shouldn't be surprised. Carroll is an NAIA powerhouse like the division has never seen, and in the up-and-down world of college football, the Saints have something few programs at any level – a national championship contending program every single year. Whether you're a fan of the Saints or not, what they've achieved over the last decade is something all Montanans can take pride in.
Not long after Carroll dispatched Georgetown, the Grizzlies put the finishing touches on a 41-10 win over Central Arkansas in the second of the FCS playoffs in Missoula. For many Griz fans, the win was a collective sigh of relief, because now all of Griz Nation can say things are back to normal.
Montana didn't play in December of 2010, the first time in 17 years the Griz missed the playoffs. And while the 2009 national title game to last Saturday's win in Missoula seemed like an eternity for some Griz fans, order seems to have been restored in Missoula.
In fact, with Montana's dominating 36-10 win at Montana State on Nov. 19, with a blowout win over Central Arkansas and a nationally-televised night game against Northern Iowa looming on Friday night, it's almost as if 2010 never happened. It's as if nothing ever changed. It's just business as usual for the Grizzlies.
Finally, the Bobcats gave Montana a rare tri-fecta on Saturday. With darkness falling in Bozeman, the Cats blocked a point after attempt to salvage a thrilling 26-25 second-round playoff win over New Hampshire.
It's been quite the ride for Bobcats fans this season. They went on a 9-game winning streak, were ranked No. 1 in the FCS, then lost to Montana in Bozeman, losing home field advantage through the playoffs. At one point, Cats fans were talking national championship, but then they were leaving the Griz-Cat game early in the second half.
However, the Cats exercised a lot of demons on Saturday and Montana should be proud. They won their first playoff game since 2006 and Saturday's win will finally put last year's North Dakota State meltdown in the rearview mirror. But what stands out to me is MSU beat a CAA team – something the Big Sky Conference has had trouble doing over the years. It's no secret that I'm not particularly fond of MSU football, but I loved the fact the Cats rose up and put the CAA in its place for a day.
And with Saturday's jubilant win in Bozeman, the Cats, Griz and Saints are marching on in a way that Montana hasn't seen too often.
Carroll is one win away from its seventh national championship under head coach Mike Van Diest. And while the Saints rest this week, the Griz and Cats are one win away from facing each other for a chance to play for a national championship. They'll both be showcased on ESPN this weekend, and both teams are good bets to move on.
I've watched and been a fan of a lot of college football in this great state. I've seen some amazing things over the years and I've always been proud of the kind of football we play in Montana. We should all take pride in the fact that last Saturday alone, the Griz, with 34 Montana-born players, the Cats with 42 and Carroll with 46 were all winning huge football games at the same time.
I know I'm proud of it. And it looks like this kind of football success is here to stay.
They say Montana is the "Last Best Place". Well, it starting to look like the First Best Place for college football.