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Wayne Nelson: UND ready for a big season

University of North Dakota team surround the Big Sky trophy, posing for photos. (Jesse Trelstad/Forum News Service)

The Division I era in UND football began Aug. 28, 2008, against Texas A&M-Kingsville, which, to this date, remains a Division II school.

UND routed Kingsville 48-18 before more than 11,000 fans at The Alerus Center. UND promoted the move to Division I in a big way back then, but it was hard for hard-core football fans to toe the company line, especially when the list of UND opponents read as such—St. Cloud State, Western Washington, Stony Brook, Sioux Falls, Lamar, Drake and the like.

Sure, there were money games along the way such as Fresno State, San Diego State and Texas Tech—games scheduled to appease fans who were growing tired of a steady diet of Division II and small Division I programs.

But the feel of Division I FCS football lacked until UND joined the Big Sky Conference in 2012.

And for the first few seasons in the Big Sky, it was more of a feeling out process for UND and its fans.

Could UND compete in the Sky? Could the Fighting Hawks develop an increased fan base? Could UND reach the FCS playoffs, with the ultimate goal of winning a national championship.

No one really knew as the program existed quietly in the middle of the massive, three time-zone league.

Well, last season set the stage for what we'll see tonight when UND—ranked No. 8 in the FCS—takes on Utah, a Pac-12, Power 5 program that is ranked No. 25 in one preseason FBS poll.

In a sense, we didn't have a true feeling of Division I FCS football until late last season when the Hawks surged and won the Big Sky, reaching the playoffs in the process. But we're now moving in that direction.

Tonight's game before 45,000 fans at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City now becomes UND's biggest in its Division I era.

It likely won't affect whether UND reaches the FCS playoffs again this season, but it's expected to show just how far the program has come since Bubba Schweigert returned to his North Dakota roots and took over Fighting Hawks football in 2014.

Under Bubba, UND's football is on the move.

We're seeing the results of his tireless effort to rebrand UND football.

• The Alerus Center also is starting to look like an actual football venue with more references to its main tenant inside the facility.

• UND, The Alerus and community leaders are hoping to enhance the UND football gameday experience—working to make tailgating a must for Grand Forks and area sports fans

• And UND season ticket sales are up roughly 1,100 this season. More than 5,000 fans now hold season tickets. Winners, as we all know, sell more tickets.

In past seasons, the UND-Utah game likely would have been billed as a warmup for Utah and a nice payday for UND.

But Bubba's program turned the corner last season. It's on track for a sustained run of success, although there is no guarantee that will happen.

UND, however, won't be a pushover for the Utes, or a cupcake opponent as they say.

"It's a tough football team, physical, that won a bunch of games last year and has got just about everybody back," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "They're a quality football team and we by no means have our focus anywhere but on them. That's been the case all through fall camp—it was all about North Dakota."

That's standard coach-speak in a game like this.

Thanks to the surge of Bubba's program the past two years, however, that comment seems to be more believable this time.

And that's a good thing for UND football fans.

Wayne Nelson
Nelson is the sports editor of the Herald
(701) 780-1268
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