The College Sports Journal 2020 FCS National Championship Roundtable: James Madison vs. North Dakota State, And Fearless Predictions

The FCS National Championship game will be played this weekend in Frisco, Texas and will be televised nationally on ABC. Prior to the game, the College Sports Journal crew – Chuck Burton, Ray Maloney, Ben Schleiger, Kent Schmidt and Jamie Williams – sat down for a Championship game round table to discuss the game. 

First things first, who is going to Frisco? When do you get in? How many times have you been before?

Kent Schmidt: Yes, I will be there Thursday before the game.  I will be covering my ninth straight national title game and all but one while it has been in Frisco.  

Jamie Williams: I will be there Thursday night. This is my third trip to Frisco; I’ve gone every time James Madison has made an appearance.

Chuck, Ben from a non-JMU/NDSU fan, what are you looking forward to most with regards to the game?

Ben Schleiger: Personally, I want to see a high scoring first half and a defensively stout second half. I want to see both side’s playmakers in action and completely exhaust themselves until there’s a clear champion. JMU’s defense has more high caliber players, but NDSU seems to control the line of scrimmage better.

Chuck Burton:  I’m looking forward to seeing the no-doubt-about-it two best teams in FCS finally get to face off against one another in Frisco.  This FCS National Championship game seemed almost inevitable when JMU beat Villanova and NDSU beat SDSU – games that were likeliest their sternest test through the playoffs, and it seems to have come true. 

I’m also looking forward to both of these rabid fan bases take over Frisco – this is a dream matchup for every bar and restaurant in the city.

Courtesy The Dickinson Press

Kent, Ray, what do you see as NDSU’s biggest strength that they can use to attack JMU?

Ray Maloney: NDSU’s biggest strength is in in the offensive front. The Rams as they are have been affectionately known for nearly 50 years has always been in a league of their own. It’s part of the tradition that makes NDSU football something truly special. The line, through time has done its job in protecting whoever was quarterbacking at the time while opening holes for a legion of backs to pick up valuable yardage time after time after time.

Some opponents may have had bigger or stronger defensive fronts in years past, but none have had units smarter than the offensive front of the Bison.

How do you stop a Bison runner in short yardage? Psst, don’t ask South Dakota State what the secret is. The Jacks didn’t have a clue a few months ago and it cost them a chance at an upset.

Kent: As been the case for NDSU throughout is championship run the biggest strength of the team is the five offensive linemen.  Led by All-Americans OT Dillion Radunz and OG Zack Johnson, as well as TE Ben Ellefson, the line is what paves the way for the running game and has the tendency to wear out its opponent by its physical style of play.  The fourth quarter is when this unit looks at its best. 

Jamie, what do you see as JMU’s biggest strength that they can use to attack NDSU? 

Jamie: While I think the strongest unit JMU has is its defensive line, the strongest unit of the Bison is its offensive line, so look for those two to cancel each other out. I think JMU may be able to use Riley Stapleton’s size to their advantage like they did in 2017. He had 7 catches for 107 yards, so I think the Dukes will look to get the ball in his hands. Inside the red zone, I imagine DiNucci will look for Stapleton on a fade route.

Kent, Ray what do you see as a concern for NDSU that JMU may be able to exploit?

Ray: The only hope James Madison has in dethroning the Bison is by being successful at mixing things up, which is easier said than done. When an opponent relies on either running or passing the football, NDSU simply accepts the challenge, pins its ears back and gets the job done.

Kent: There are not too many big holes for the Bison, but NDSU has given up some long passes, so it would be a good plan for the Dukes to air it out down field at least a little, especially to start the game.  The JMU WR match-up against CBs Marquise Bridges and Josh Hayes will go a long way to determining the outcome of this game.

Jamie, what do you see as a concern for JMU that NDSU may be able to exploit?

Jamie: The biggest concern for me is big plays. I think the Bison may be able to hit a big play over the top to Watson if the secondary isn’t careful. The Dukes have been susceptible to the big play, especially early in games. If the Bison hit a big on early, it could cause the Dukes to have to chase the game and get them out of rhythm. 

Courtesy JMU Breeze

Who is one player or factor on each team that can be an X factor in the game?

Ben:  It should be second half offense. The reason for that dig at the two teams is they start off dominant and hot with aggressive offenses, but they seem to lose steam in the second half and sometimes leave the door open for a possible comeback. 

Kent: One player that will be an X-factor for NDSU will be WR Christian Watson.  While NDSU has a stable of running backs and the running game is the first option typically, I think that QB Trey Lance will open it up to use the speed of Watson to give JMU a different look to begin the game.  

Chuck: I find that the FCS National Championship Game can be a strong closing argument for players’ NFL Draft hopes, so on the NDSU look for LB Jabril Cox to lay everything out there on the field in Frisco.  Technically a fourth-year junior, a dominating defensive performance on Saturday by the 6’3, 233 LB linebacker could propel him into becoming a potential draft pick, even with a year of eligibility left.  He’s a sideline-to-sideline guy who had two pick sixes in 2018 and has a great motor.

The same can go for James Madison LB Dimitri Holloway.  A 5th year senior, he’s looking to also be a potential draft pick with 115 tackles and 10 1/2 tackles for loss.  He’s 6’2 and 217 LBS but like Cox has a nose for the ball and is the heart and soul of the JMU defense.  You get the feeling like both of these two competitors might try to outdo each other.

Jamie: For JMU that guy is Brandon Polk. The reasons are similar to Kent’s reasons for Watson. Polk’s speed can be a game changer. Multiple times this year, he has taken a five yard catch and turned it into a fifty yard touchdown. You can’t coach speed.

Ben, after watching JMU/Weber what did you see as some things you did not realize about JMU that may have surprised you?

Ben: I saw a consistency in the JMU defense that was impressive to only see one score per half. To keep the opposing team at bay, even with a big lead, is important when finishing off games.

Chuck, what did you see from each semi that you expected to see and what did you see that surprised you?

Chuck: I honestly had bought into the hype of Montana State as a “team of destiny” and I thought a reasonably well-rested Bobcat team would be able to give the Bison a run for their money.  I didn’t think they would be intimidated by the Fargodome (they were) and I thought they could pressure Trey Lance into making some critical mistakes (they didn’t).  One thing that did surprise me but probably shouldn’t have is how much stronger NDSU is the further they advance in the playoffs at home.  When I watched Nicholls play NDSU so close, I thought NDSU could be vulnerable against a senior-heavy team that followed the same playbook as the Colonels, but I was wrong.  NDSU was who we thought they were.

Conversely, I was not too surprised by the Weber State/JMU game.  The Wildcats simply didn’t have a dynamic enough offense to keep up with JMU if the score got beyond say 28 points – their best bet was a low-scoring bad weather game with the same sort of dominating defensive performance they had against Montana.  Once JMU leaped to a 24-7 lead, you had a sense JMU was going to Frisco.

One neat thing in the playoffs in general is that both teams needed to win using different styles.  Northern Iowa tried to get JMU to grind it out and get them out of their game, and they were successful, and Montana State dared Trey Lance to beat them with a big-play offense, and they did just that.  It’s rare that any college football team can handle any style that’s thrown at them, and in Frisco we will be seeing two such teams.

NDSU DT Matt Beigler tackleing Illinois State RB James Robinson during the Bison 9-3 2019 FCS Quarterfinal win. (Courtesy of NDSU Athletics)

Kent, Ray what was the difference in how NDSU played against ISU vs how they played against Montana State that made the games so different? Is it as simple as ISUs familiarity due to playing them every year?

Ray: The improvement made by the Bison when looking at the games against Illinois State and Montana State was simply poise. For some reason I thought NDSU at times this season lost some of its poise on both sides of the ball and made some stupid penalties at inopportune times that thwarted some drives. I am sure those issues where discussed outside of earshot of the coaches and the result was put on display against the Bobcats.

Kent: Watching both games, the major difference in the two games (as well as the game NDSU had in the second roud versus Nicholls) was the play calling, I felt.  The play calling was very conservative against NDSU’s first two opponents in the playoffs but that was drastically different against Montana State.  The Bison opened the offensive play calling to some long pass plays and reverses in first and second downs.  That kind of play calling to be more aggressive will be key for NDSU to keep JMU guessing.  

Jamie, what was the difference in how JMU played against UNI vs how they played against Weber State that made the games so different?

Jamie: I think it was as simple as weather. Against UNI, the weather was nasty, it was cold and rainy which slowed the pace a little. JMU got out to a quick lead and then sat on the ball in the run game. That showed on the stat sheet with the time of possession being over 40 minutes for the Dukes. 

Against Weber, it was a more clear night and the Dukes really leaned on Riley Stapleton in the pass game and he delivered just like he did in the quarterfinals in 2017. The Dukes can win any way they need to, and they have shown that this post season.

Do you think NDSU and JMU’s dominance this year and multiple years is good for FCS as a subdivision? 

Jamie: Its good and bad. Obviously, if you are a fan of either team, especially NDSU, you love it. Its bad only in a sense that you know whats going to happen before the game is even played. Sure there is always a chance for an upset, but those don’t happen often for these two teams. NDSU is on a pedestal all their own. Everyone else is chasing them, even JMU. But I do get tired of other fan bases whining and saying they JMU and NDSU need to move to FBS. To them, I say, get better. Thinking the only chance you have to get better is for the big dog to leave is a lose mindset and I don’t like that.

Ray: I think the dominance of NDSU for the past decade and the recent dominance of JMU is a good thing for FCS. Some people scoffed at the notion of NDSU moving to the FCS, but the meteoric rise is easily attributed to the due diligence by school officials who did all the right things to assure things would be done the correct way and with no shortcuts. There has long been a culture of success at the school in not only football, but many of the other sports as well.

The Bison and the Dukes are the benchmark programs of the division, but instead of bemoaning that fact like some people have in recent weeks, other schools need to step up their own game and do a better job of elevating the level of their own programs. It has long been said you become the best by beating the best … no one has ever said that you become the best by kicking out the best to make yourself better.

Do you think NDSU and JMU have football models that can be duplicated elsewhere?  Is it a function of great coaching, great recruiting, region, a combination, or something else entirely?

Jamie: I think its different for each of those schools. For NDSU, they have built a brand. It’s a nationally known brand that kids want to play in. JMU is similar but they have the facilities and the ability to pay their coaches and the COA that attracts kids there as well. Once you are on the national stage like these two have been, they can pull recruits away from G5 and sometimes P5 teams. JMU also has been adept at selecting the right transfers, something NDSU doesn’t really do a lot of. It shows that you can get to the top in different ways if the work is put in.

Ray: NDSU and SDSU made the move together and have reaped the benefits. SDSU, despite not having a title to its credit, has established itself as one of the top programs in the FCS. The University of North Dakota and the University of South Dakota could have been the switch at the same time, but chose not to … and have been relegated to also-rans since their decisions to finally make the move.

Does the fact that they are state schools have anything to do with it, or not?

Jamie: I haven’t really dug into it that much, but there could be some smoke there. They aren’t relying totally on the donors; there is state money coming in as well. But maybe it’s a non factor. I am not sure.

Ray: NDSU is a model program that encompasses a history of great coaching in a region known for the work ethic that many of the area embodies, but more importantly, it is the a program steeped in tradition that can never be duplicated. Many of the things that helped create the NDSU mystique would simply not fly in today’s world of entitlement and political correctness.

Who wins and why – the Fearless Predictions.

Ben: Both teams have talented sides, but the defense has trouble getting started and the offense has trouble finishing games. This could be a genuine two-faced slugfest that involves both sides of the ball just in different halves. I’d say this game is a coin flip. JMU relies on key players to make plays, but if one of them gets stopped that could alter the game plan dramatically. Trey Lance relies on a diverse set of players to run and catch. If his options can be limited then the probability of a turnover will go up exponentially. This will be a game of execution. Both coaches will surely get brilliant game plans going, but any and every mistake will be amplified. The team with more mistakes will be the loser, unless the refs play a part of this game like several of the bowl endings. 

I’m torn since this is a coin flip, but the Bison have such a good win percentage. If I could simply put a score and let the teams fill in the blank I would. I think NDSU has more chemistry, but JMU has more playmakers. JMU 31, NDSU 27

Chuck: I think this will be the clash of titans that people are expecting.  I’ll go with the prediction that I had before a single FCS Playoff game was played this year – James Madison’s hunger and overall experience will put them over the top.  I may regret it, like picking Montana State in the semis, but I will double down.  JMU 36, NDSU 33

Ray: Part of me wishes this game could last until Sunday as it features two very, very good football teams. If the NCAA had not done away with ties several years ago that could be a reality. But, one team is going to have to come out on the short end and … well, there used to be a slogan painted on the wall of the training room at NDSU many years ago that could come into play in a big way on Saturday. That being the case, NDSU 38, JMU 37.

Kent: These two teams are really in a class by themselves in the FCS right now.  They mirror each other very well.  I see this game coming down to who wins the time of possession and turnover battle.  With two close teams the battle of the offensive and defensive lines will also be critical to the winner.  Both teams have some components back so the big stage will not be too big for either team.  This game comes down similar to what it did the last time these two teams met in 2017 for the national title with it being within one touchdown.  I do think it will be a little higher scoring with the prolific offenses, however.  But in the end, NDSU has the right recipe to how to deal with this game.  The Bison will host their eighth FCS national title trophy.   NDSU 27 JMU 24

Jamie: I think this game will be an absolute dog fight. The 2017 game was 17-13 and this game could follow a similar pattern. It should be a close game all day long. I look for each team to try to establish the run but keep the other honest with the pass game. I think this is a one score game until a late JMU touchdown ices it. JMU 27, NDSU 13

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