It's been a nice start to the season for the St. Ambrose football team.
But the 2-0 Fighting Bees are facing a whole new test this week.
The No. 23-ranked Bees host defending national champion and top-ranked Saint Francis (Ind.) on Saturday, the first of three ranked opponents on the schedule for St. Ambrose.
"We need everything we can get going into this week," defensive lineman Chris Overton said. "We've got the No. 1 team in the nation coming into our place. That doesn't happen much."
It actually hasn't been that long since the Bees welcomed the defending national champion to Brady Street Stadium. They hosted Grand View in 2014 although the Vikings were ranked fourth at the time. The Bees lost that game 53-24 and finished 5-5.
This matchup presents a chance for the Bees to show how far they've come since.
"There's an added level of excitement," head coach Mike Magistrelli said. "Over the first two weeks we've gained some confidence in ourselves and we feel it's a great opportunity for us to measure up and see where we're at, and see just how good we can be."
So far, the Cougars look just as dangerous as they were last season. They won their season opener over the University of Jamestown 55-7, then beat Saint Francis (Ill.) 68-23 last week.
The Cougars return both quarterback Nick Ferrer, who threw for more than 4,000 yards and 51 touchdowns last year, and running back Justin Greenm who had 1,300 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns.
However, Ferrer is dealing with a new crop of receivers, something that could help the Bees contain the strong passing attack.
The St. Ambrose secondary is young — sophomore Kobe Easley and freshman Jake Schramm started last week on the corners — but has potential as Easley picked off two passes last week. The Bees have held opponents to 198 yards passing per game the first two weeks.
"We know they've got some explosive receivers and a great quarterback but we just have to stay disciplined and listen to what the coaches have been telling us," Easley said. "Eyes on the hip, get your hand through the ball, just play our game."
Easley and the secondary are just one of several pieces that might make the Bees primed to pull off the upset. Overton leads the nation with five sacks through two games, part of an experienced front seven that will try to get past a Cougar offensive line that has yet to allow a sack.
Offensively, St. Ambrose has shown the ability to control the ball, running 100 plays in its season-opening win over Dakota State, but the Bees can also strike quickly with five of their scoring plays last week against Lindenwood-Belleville coming from 25 or more yards out.
Through two weeks, the Bees are averaging 279 yards on the ground, fifth-best in the country, and have a stable of running backs led by Baylee Hopps, who is averaging 114.5 yards per game and 5.5 yards per carry.
"With our offensive threat of rushing and passing, it makes the defense wonder what we're going to do so they don't know what to cover," Hopps said. "It's a big opportunity in front of us. It gives us something, if we can pull this off, to really show everybody what we're made of."
The Cougars have controlled the all-time series, winning nine of the 10 meetings but seven of those games were decided by 14 points or less. Eleven of St. Ambrose's starters are juniors or younger and this is their first taste of the series, with the last meeting — a 27-13 Cougars win — coming in 2014.
"I think we're young and inexperienced enough to not care," Magistrelli said. "I don't think they're intimidated or overwhelmed at this time and that's a positive for us."
It's an attitude that is echoed by the team itself.
"We're not really worried about what they're going to do or who they are," Easley said. "They're just another team on the schedule for us and we just have to go out there and execute what we have to do."