FARGO — The North Dakota State University football team finished the 2011 season on the best note imaginable when it beat Sam Houston State 17-6 to win its first national championship since moving to the NCAA Division 1 Football Championship Subdivision.
It was a win that meant plenty to then-sophomore wide receiver Ryan Smith, a Wahpeton native who grew up watching the Bison.
"It was a great experience all around, being able to play in a national championship," said Smith, who is a junior on this year's team. "Being able to play in a national championship is always going to be a once in a lifetime deal. You never know if you're ever going to play in one again, so we just really took advantage of what we had and, you know, being from Wahpeton, you don't see that very often. It's kind of cool just to go back to Wahpeton and show everyone your ring."
As much as Smith and his teammates cherish the memories of what was, they're also hoping to avoid living in it. Instead, the emphasis entering the 2012 season, which starts Sept. 1 with a home game against Robert Morris University, is simply on doing well within the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
"We're not even thinking about anything national, we're thinking strictly about now," NDSU coach Craig Bohl said at a press conference during the team's media day Friday at the FargoDome. "We've found that if you're one of the top two, or typically three teams in our league, you're going to get in the playoffs, period. Once you get into the playoffs, the playoffs are a whole new season. Everything changes. So our goal is to really play when we're in the conference."
The Bison return plenty of experience, though, with 13 full-time starters (six offensive, seven defensive) returning from last season, including quarterback Brock Jensen, running back Sam Ojuri, and cornerback Marcus Williams.
Jensen said the returning players avoided complacency over the offseason and instead worked to make sure they got better.
"We understand that we have a big target on our back now and that it's important to us to put last year away and keep that in the back of our minds temporarily," he said. "We have a new team this year, we have a new focus. We're just one out of one hundred and however many teams there are in the FCS and that's how we're going about our business right now."
Offensively, the team graduated right tackle Paul Cornick and left guard Austin Richard, who were both four-year letter winners.
"Those were two really solid rocks in there, so we're going to work our tails off to develop not only some depth but just a couple of starters at that position," Bohl said.
The team returns several other members of the line, including center Joe Lund, tackle Billy Turner and guard Tyler Gimmestad, each of whom had at least 14 starts last year.
Jensen said he isn't concerned about the changes to the line.
"It always seems to me that (offensive line) coach (Scott) Fuchs always finds a front five that is pretty solid," he said. "I'm just going to leave that up to him. I have no worries about our offensive line. We'll be able to get it done."
Offensively, the team also hopes to have a deep run game, led by Ojuri, who ran for over 1,105 yards last year, and a deep group of wide receivers including Smith, Cooper Wahlo, Jr, and Zach Vraa.
Defensively, the Bison hope to have a strong secondary anchored by Williams at cornerback and former cornerback Christian Dudzik and Colten Heagle at the safety positions.
The team also has key linemen Cole Jirik, Leevon Perry , Ryan Drevlow and Kyle Emanuel returning, as well as linebackers Travis Beck, the MVP of the FCS championship game, and Brandon Jemison.
Bohl expects plenty of success from the defense.
"I'd be disappointed if we weren't one of the best defenses in our conference," he said. "I'd be disappointed and surprised."
The Bison enter the season ranked No. 1 in the MVFC preseason poll and also were ranked by No.1 nationally by the College Sporting News staff.
Smith said the team is focused on the accolades.
"What's on our mind right now is the first game against Robert Morris," he said.
One thing the team is looking forward to, though, is a packed FargoDome throughout the season. The school announced last week that it had sold out tickets for every home game, although select tickets could be made available closer to the game.
"The crowd is definitely a reason why we're so successful in the FargoDome. If it wasn't for them, you never know what would happen in a playoff game," Smith said. "It was extremely loud in here and we're expecting the same thing. They're going to be loud and proud and ready to yell."