Division I FCS National Title Game Preview

FCS Championship Game: #2 seed North Dakota State (13-1) vs. #1 seed James Madison (14-0)

Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 6 at noon. ET

Where: Toyota Stadium (Frisco, Texas)

TV Channel: ESPN2

Coaches: James Madison: Mike Houston, 28-1 in two seasons (71-20 overall); North Dakota State: Chris Klieman, 53-6 in four seasons (56-13 overall)



FRISCO, Tex.–The two teams outlasted their competition throughout the playoffs and earned the right to compete for the FCS title are James Madison and North Dakota State—the vary two teams all season long most prognosticators thought would meet as they were ranked as the top two teams all season long and included in the playoff seedings as the top two seeds.

James Madison entered the playoffs as the top seed and eliminated Stony Brook, Weber State and #5 seeded South Dakota State to punch a ticket to the championship game.

North Dakota State entered the playoffs as the #2 seed and defeated San Diego, #7 seeded Wofford, and #6 seeded Sam Houston State on the way to the big game.

These two teams played last year in the playoff semi-finals in Fargo where JMU upset the then top seeded Bison to proceed to the title game a year ago. JMU would go on to defeat another Missouri Valley Football Conference team in Youngstown State to win its second Division I national title (other in 2004).

These two teams are like mirror images of each other. The similaries are that both like to run the ball first and play strong, aggressive style defenses.

The two also play in at least by the Sagarin rankings in the top two FCS conferences in the country in the Colonial Athletic Association and Missouri Valley Football Conference respectively.

Historically, these two teams have met twice before—both being in the playoffs. As mentioned, JMU defeated NDSU last year. NDSU, however, defeated JMU in the 2011 playoffs in the second round.

Both teams bring in multiple national titles to their resumes with JMU winning titles in 2004 and last year. NDSU had won the prior five straight national titles (2011-2015) before JMU halted that streak last season.

The Dukes (14-0) most impressive playoff win came in its last game against fellow MVFC mate South Dakota State 56-13. It was a game that the Dukes caused 10 turnovers and erupted in the second half after a fairly close first half.

Before that game, JMU had its most competitive game, however, in the quarterfinal round against the Big Sky’s Weber State. Trailing by eight with just over three minutes to play, the Dukes tied the game with a touchdown and won the game on a last second field goal.

The Bison (13-1) punched their ticket to Frisco again after three lopsided victories.

For their respective conferences, each has a recent championship history. NDSU as mentioned provided the MFVC with five straight titles and two other teams in the past seven seasons also made the national title game (Illinois State in 2014 and Youngstown State last year).

The CAA was the national power before that MVFC string. Four different CAA programs have won titles since 2003 including James Madison in 2004 and last year, and JMU’s appearance this year gives the conference a tenth finalist in the past 15-year period.

These two power FCS conferences didn’t meet in the regular season. But the two did play in the postseason. South Dakota State defeated New Hampshire before losing to JMU.

This game likely will come down to who can run the ball better against the opposing stringy defense and who will win the turnover margin.

The Bison are averaging 282.1 rushing yards per game, team’s highest average since 1996. Junior running back Bruce Anderson is the lead back after Lance Dunn went down early in the season. He has been impressive in NDSU’s last four contests (575 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns).

James Madison has also lost its top running back in Cardon Johnson after an early season-ending injury. Marcus Marshall has shown to be a formadible replacement as the Dukes are averaging 201.5 rushing yards for the season.

Both teams have a 4-3 defensive alignment to try to stop the opposing rushing attacks. JMU has registered an astounding 48 sacks and rank sixth nationally against the run and is led by All-America defensive end Andrew Ankrah.

The Bison defense is nearly as impressive in racking up 37 sacks while ranking seventh in the FCS against the run and is headed by All-America linebacker Nick DeLuca.

While both teams employee a run first type of offense, both teams have capable quarterbacks in the Dukes Bryan Schor and NDSU’s Eason Stick.

Last year, Schor passed for 242 yards and three touchdowns in last year’s playoff win over the Bison. JMU may want to expose the passing game as both NDSU starting cornerbacks, Jalen Allison and Jaylaan Wimbush, suffered knee injuries in the semifinal win over Sam Houston State. Both were considered “doubtful” for the championship game per head coach Chris Klieman. However, the Bison announced on one will start opposite sophomore Marquise Bridges, who doesn’t have a start in his career but have been reluctant to state which one. Riley Stapleton as a redshirt sophomore has emerged as the go-to receiver for Schor.

Stick has not needed to pass as much especially in the playoff but at least in the postseason has proven to avoid the interceptions. Overall, he has averaged 180 yards per game and has been a good complement to the explosive running attack.

Given these teams are that close, the turnover margin might be the big key to this game. In NDSU’s lone lose to South Dakota State (the team JMU blew out in the semi-finals) were handed five turnovers to help the Jackrabbits beat the Bison in Brookings. And as mentioned, SDSU had 10 turnovers against JMU.

I think that will be the key to the game. Who can hold onto the ball and keep the time of possession will be the keys to the winning team.

NDSU has not lost to a team in consecutive meetings since 2006. JMU brings in a 27 game winning streak—second all-time to NDSU during their five consecutive national titles. Some streak will need to end in this game.

I think the Weber State close victory will give some things that NDSU can exploit in this game. I like the Bison by a field goal in a fairly low scoring defensive struggle.

North Dakota State 23 James Madison 20