By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
FRISCO, TX. — Rob Ambrose watched last season’s NCAA Division I Football Championships with an overwhelming sense of frustration.
The fifth-year Towson University coach was convinced in the bottom of his heart that his 2012 team had the best chance of beating North Dakota State for the Football Championship Subdivision crown.
“I really believe that if we had been allowed to play in last year’s playoffs that we would have been the team playing North Dakota State for the national championship,” Ambrose said during a conversation at the Colonial Athletic Association media day in July. “We were playing as well as any team in the country at the end of last season and we had the talent to make that kind of run.”
Instead, Ambrose and the Tigers had to wait a year for those aspirations to play out.
When the national title game kicks off at 2 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on Saturday at Toyota Stadium, the home of the FC Dallas soccer team, Towson will finally get to test itself against NDSU.
Towson was a game away from a meeting with the Bison after winning the CAA championship outright in 2011, but the Tigers dropped a heartbreaking 40-38 decision to Lehigh in the second round of the playoffs on a fourth-quarter safety.
NDSU beat Lehigh 24-0 in the quarterfinals the following week, on the way to the first of those back-to-back national titles.
The fact that Towson was left out of the 2012 playoffs was one of the most ludicrous decisions ever made by the NCAA Division I Football Committee in the now 36-year championship history of what was once called I-AA football.
Somehow, the Charlie Cobb-chaired committee left out a team that played the toughest schedule in the subdivision in 2012, went 7-2 against FCS competition and won a share of the CAA title with a 64-35 thrashing of New Hampshire on the road in the final Saturday of the regular season.
Towson finished at 7-4, but two of the losses were against nationally-ranked Football Bowl Subdivision opponents, Kent State and LSU.
The Tigers had lost 41-21 on the opening night of the season to a Kent State club that went to the Mid-American Conference title game and the GoDaddy.com Bowl and finished an impressive 11-3.
Against national power LSU, Towson was more impressive, taking a 9-7 lead late in the first half before eventually losing 38-22 to a team that had played for the Bowl Championship Subdivision title less than nine months before.
Sometime during the week heading up to that final game, Cobb told then-Towson athletic director Mike Waddell during a telephone call that the Tigers had almost zero chance of making the playoffs, even with a win at New Hampshire.
Waddell passed along the contents of that conversation to this columnist an hour or so before the football committee announced its 2012 playoff pairings.
“I am totally bummed out, because I know I am going to have to be there to pick up the pieces with a group of crushed players and coaches when they find out they haven’t made the playoffs,” Waddell said.
In the politics of the NCAA selection process, New Hampshire, at 8-3, was not only rewarded with a questionable playoff berth, but the Wildcats also received a first-round bye. Richmond, which also shared the CAA title with Towson, UNH and automatic-bid winner Villanova, was left out of the playoff field as well.
To someone not in that meeting room in Indianapolis, it looked suspiciously like the committee might have had some of those brackets filled even before the final weekend of games was played.
To an outsider, this was the most nonsensical championship bracket ever presented.
But it provided a burning spark to Towson’s off-season workouts and fueled the Tigers resolve for 2013.
“It was like a punch to your gut,” Ambrose said of the playoff snub. “But we talked all during the off-season about how we had to be accountable, that we had to control everything we could control.”
Out of this bitter disappointment was birthed a team slogan, “Leave no doubt.”
And that determination has shown from the opening week of the 2013 season, when Towson crushed Connecticut, 33-18, for the school’s first-ever BCS/FBS win.
The Tigers opened the season with six consecutive wins before dropping two of four CAA games in the middle of the season to Villanova (45-35) and Delaware (32-31).
The excruciating nature of the loss at home to Delaware — with the Tigers blowing a 31-10 fourth-quarter lead and allowing 15 points in the final 48 seconds — refocused Towson towards its championship push.
Since then, Towson has won five consecutive games, including three in a row against top-10-ranked playoff opponents from Fordham (48-28), Eastern Illinois (49-39) and Eastern Washington (35-31).
Those championship aspirations could have easily come unraveled two weeks ago at Eastern Washington.
The Tigers raced to a 21-0 lead early in the second quarter and were close to busting the game open with a chance for a 28-7 halftime advantage when starting quarterback Peter Athens was knocked out of the game with a strained AC joint in his right throwing shoulder.
EWU rallied for a 31-21 lead in the fourth quarter and suddenly Towson was on the ropes, needing two touchdowns in between a defensive stop in the final minutes to pull out a victory.
Seldom-used backup Connor Frazier’s quarterback sneak from a yard out, with 17 seconds left, lifted the Tigers into their first FCS championship game.
And the reward of that win is the chance to finally face the best team FCS has to offer, two-time defending champion North Dakota State, at long last.
“The best quote I heard this week was that if things had been a little different in someone else’s eyes, this game would have been a rematch and I like that,” Ambrose said.