UND preparing for first season in new conference

Associated Press

GRAND FORKS, N.D. (AP) — The University of North Dakota football team finally had something to talk about Monday at its annual media day.

After five years in limbo while making the transition to NCAA's Division I, UND is now a playoff-eligible club in the Football Championship Subdivision.

The team has a new league, new jerseys, even new turf.

"It's only a few days into camp, but you can see it in everyone's eyes. This is the top, absolutely." said Emmett Lynch, senior offensive lineman from Lester Prairie, Minn.

The initiation into the 13-team Big Sky Conference is certain to be challenging. The top five picks in separate preseason polls are among the nine league teams on UND's schedule. The media's poll has picked coach Chris Mussman's club to finish sixth, and UND is forecast to finish 10th in the coaches poll.

"We know what we're up against," Mussman said.

Mussman pointed out several members of his first recruiting class who attended Monday's event and called it a "surreal moment" now that the transition has ended.

One of those players, senior defensive lineman Ross Brenneman of Omaha, Neb., said he came to UND to be a part of history.

"We can do some unprecedented things this season and I wanted to be a part of that," Brenneman said.

Lynch said the team has been steadily preparing for this season.

"I never looked at it as missing out on anything. I saw it as something building and building and building," Lynch said. "We've been going up the ladder and now we finally get to do what we all came here for."

UND finished with an 8-3 record last year and earned a share of the Great West Conference title, which Brenneman called the "mighty mite" league that included fellow Big Sky rookies Cal Poly, UC Davis and Southern Utah.

"The level of play was really good for how small it was," Brenneman said. "I thought it prepared us very well to enter into this league."

The strength of the team is expected to be in the trenches, with three returning starters on the defensive line and four on the offensive line. Coaches are hoping to fill a void at quarterback with Braden Hanson, a left-handed transfer from North Carolina who called UND looking for a job. He's now listed as the starter.

"I'm very grateful I picked up the phone," Hanson said. "It was very last-minute. I called and a week later I was here."

The team opens the season at home against South Dakota Mines on Aug. 30. UND plays traditional powers and old-time rivals Montana and Montana State on back-to-back Saturdays in October. North Dakota has played Montana State 28 times and Montana 19 times.

"There's more excitement this year," said junior running back Jake Miller, from Bismarck. "We have something to play for."

The only thing missing is a nickname. The school dropped its Fighting Sioux moniker after a contentious debate included a state law that was passed and then rescinded, and a ballot measure that was defeated by voters.

Mussman said it's been a tricky transition, as the name is ingrained into several team customs, such as chants.

"It has been a little awkward," Mussman said. "We just have to get used to it."