Finally, North Dakota State is again playing UND at the Alerus Center. While Saturday’s game certainly will remind fans of years past, this matchup isn’t at all about the storied history of the UND-NDSU rivalry.

Saturday’s game is about the future. It’s about erasing an odd and unnecessary void when the teams didn’t play for years, and about an absolutely correct decision for UND to move from the Big Sky Conference to the Missouri Valley Football Conference.

The last time these rivals met in Grand Forks was 2003, when UND earned a 28-21 win over the Bison. Later in the season, UND played for the NCAA Division II national championship.

Since then, NDSU has not traveled the 70 miles to play here. We all know the reasons why.

Foremost, the teams moved up from NCAA II to NCAA I in different years, upsetting the competitive balance that previously existed. That move also meant UND and NDSU ended up in different conferences, creating scheduling difficulties.

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And, for whatever reason, there was just a pervading stubbornness that prevented scheduling regular games as non-conference opponents, leading to a span of 12 years without a UND-NDSU game.

In 2009, the idea even appeared as a bill in the Legislature. As proposed, it would have forced the universities to play every year, with the site alternating between Fargo and Grand Forks.

The bill stalled in the House, and Rep. Mike Schatz, R-New England, gave this cliche-filled reason: “It would be unsportsmanlike for us to try to force the fumble of authority from the two universities.”

Nonetheless, it’s all in the past. The new era began in the spring season, when the teams met again as conference opponents; Saturday’s game ends the void UND fans have felt since 2003.

There will be 12,000 people crammed into the Alerus Center Saturday. Hotel rooms are hard to come by, restaurants will be full, and the Alerus Center parking lot will be a tangle of humanity in the hours leading up to the game. Without a doubt, there is an air of excitement in the community.

This week shows why it was right for UND to move from the Big Sky Conference to the Missouri Valley Football Conference. While there was some excitement around games against, say, Montana these past few years, it just wasn’t the same as an NDSU game.

Local fans yawned their way through many of those Big Sky opponents. It’s hard to forget the sleepy atmosphere in the Alerus Center when Portland State played here in 2018. The visiting Vikings had twice as many players on the sidelines as supporting fans in the stands.

Sure, South Dakota State and USD have played here in recent times, but even those teams didn’t help fill the Alerus Center. Recent non-conference games against the Bison (in 2015 and 2019) were interesting, but didn’t have the importance that comes with conference play.

Saturday will be different, and no matter the outcome, the people lucky enough to have a ticket will get to experience something – a conference game against NDSU, in Grand Forks – we have missed out on for years.