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The Hawkeyes will face the North Dakota State Bison on Saturday. Here are three things to watch during the game. Kelsey Kremer/The Register

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — The Hawkeyes were too busy paying compliments to be overconfident.

Saturday’s opponent is five-time defending FCS champion North Dakota State, but Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz is ignoring a difference in subdivisions. Or sports.

“It’s like looking at Bill Russell’s record in playoffs,” Ferentz said Tuesday, invoking the Boston Celtics of the 1960s. “It’s ridiculous, but it’s a real credit to them.”

Iowa players avoided historic NBA comparisons in the buildup to Kinnick Stadium’s Week 3 showdown. They’re well-versed enough in college football and watched hours of film to see the Bison (2-0) as a close-to-home challenge entering mid-September.

“It’s going to be like Big Ten Conference play,” Iowa defensive tackle Nathan Bazata said of the 11 a.m. Saturday game. “They remind you of Wisconsin and Michigan State because they’re so good with their fundamentals.”

Bazata has already followed North Dakota State’s dynasty from an opposite sideline, as his older brother Steven played at rival South Dakota State from 2005-09. The top-rated Bison began a five-game winning streak against larger FBS programs the next season.

Iowa has pretty good reasons — pride, a No. 11 ranking, a 14-game regular season unbeaten streak and a $500,000 payout among them — to avoid becoming the Bison’s sixth straight takedown.

“I went up there to watch games, so even in middle school I was seeing them in the FCS playoffs,” Bazata said.

“Their coach (Craig Bohl) from a few years ago moved on and they haven’t skipped a beat. They’re really physical and there’s no doubt that they really know how to play.”

An attention-grabbing opener helped the Hawkeyes focus on North Dakota State, too.

ESPN aired the Bison’s overtime clash with Charleston Southern on Aug. 27 as a soft launch to the regular season. It was a week before Iowa handled Miami of Ohio at home and offered an exciting entry point to dual-threat quarterback Easton Stick and the physical Bison defense.

“Usually you look more at the teams in your conference,” Iowa linebacker Ben Niemann said, “but I saw NDSU play its opener a couple weeks ago and then Illinois State beat Northwestern last week.

“I mostly heard from schools at that level because Iowa was my only BCS offer.”

NDSU escaped in another ranked overtime game against Eastern Washington last week as the Hawkeyes (2-0) were pounding rival Iowa State. That win, their pedigree and a raucous fan base earned Iowa’s full attention and some admiration this week.

“This is going to be the best team that we’ve faced thus far,” Iowa running back LeShun Daniels Jr. said. “They’re going to want to come in and beat us in Kinnick. … We’ve got to go out and execute because they’re not going to beat themselves.”

Similar recruiting styles add to the pregame respect. Both programs have developed in-state and regional talent, taking one- or two-star prospects and turning them into all-conference physical threats.

And following the FCS scene is easier when those schools were primary recruiters. Plenty of Hawkeyes only had offers and interest at that level until Iowa extended an FBS arm, star middle linebacker Josey Jewell included.

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Iowa's linebacker is impressed with the FCS No. 1 Bison, who sort of resemble Wisconsin.

“Any D-I football is good football,” Jewell said. “We’ve got to be ready and be focused like we’re playing anybody else. They can look like Wisconsin, but that varies depending on what they want to run.”

Iowa safety Brandon Snyder had an NDSU scholarship offer coming off a 2013 state title at West Lyon, but opted to walk-on in Iowa City. Freshman Shaun Beyer was a Bison commit before the Hawkeyes changed his mind last November.

There’s an athletic profile and type of kid that both schools tend to chase. And it speaks volumes for North Dakota State’s ability to step up and take on Big Ten opponents.

“If they are recruiting somebody, that gets our attention,” Ferentz said. “I’m not a big one for, ‘Who is recruiting this guy?’ I rarely ask that of our staff when we look at prospects. If North Dakota State is looking at them, that does get my attention because I think they’ve done a wonderful job, not only on guys in Iowa, but in the Midwest.”

The only FCS and FBS gap Ferentz will grant? Depth.

“You can only put 11 guys on the field at once,” Ferentz said on Tuesday’s weekly Big Ten teleconference. “My experience has been that the biggest difference is depth. Just overall numbers when you compare the two. But the guys they put out there on the football field are tremendous players.

“They’ve got a lot of guys that look like guys that we play with, that maybe get overlooked a little bit in recruiting, but end up being really good players.”

And that brings Iowa back to its Big Ten-type focus.

The final nonconference tune-up before Rutgers opens the important slate next week is expected to be a physical clash that players don’t typically face until October and that Ferentz compared to Michigan State and Stanford — both losses to end last season.

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Iowa football columnist Chad Leistikow and reporter Chris Cuellar break down Iowa's challenges this week. Rodney White/The Register

NDSU third-year coach Chris Klieman is an Iowa native and has a program used to tackling and outmuscling bigger foes.

That’s why the Hawkeyes are treating the Bison like the biggest threat of this early 2016 season. FBS, FCS, or anything else.

“I’ve got a lot of respect for those guys and for NDSU in particular,” Niemann said.

“I don’t think the level of Division I or Division I-AA or whatever really matters. They’re football players just like us.”

Iowa won the only two previous meetings of this series in 1946 and 1947.

OUT OF YOUR LEAGUE

Listing the last five non-subdivision opponents for both North Dakota State (FCS) and Iowa (FBS).

North Dakota State

Year       Opponent           Result    Score

2010      Kansas                  W           6-3

2011      Minnesota           W           37-24

2012      Colorado State   W           22-7      

2013      Kansas State       W           24-21

2014      Iowa State           W           34-14

Iowa

Year       Opponent           Result    Score

2011      Tennessee Tech W           34-7

2012      Northern Iowa   W           27-16

2013      Missouri State    W           28-14

2014      Northern Iowa   W           31-23

2015      Illinois State        W           31-14

NORTH DAKOTA STATE (2-0) at No. 11 IOWA (2-0)

WHERE: Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City

TIME/TV: 11 a.m., ESPN2 (Beth Mowins, Anthony Becht, Rocky Boiman)

LINE: N/A

WEATHER: Mostly sunny with a high approaching 80 degrees early in the afternoon; a mild breeze out of the west-northwest may top 10 mph.

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