It's No. 1 vs. No. 2 as a dream matchup becomes reality again
Wow, that was some nap. Did you dream in green and yellow or purple and gold?
If you slept through the FCS college football season, you missed a lot. But here's the good thing: You're somewhat caught up because the 2019 season is ending where it began, with North Dakota State still ranked No. 1 and James Madison at No. 2. It's where they were in the Athlon FCS Preseason Top 25 last spring.
Saturday's FCS championship game matchup between North Dakota State (15-0) and James Madison (14-1) is epic. The unbeaten Bison from the Missouri Valley Football Conference are on an FCS-record 36-game winning streak, winning two of their record seven national titles during the run, including with a 17-13 win over James Madison in the 2017 title game. But the CAA champion Dukes are in Frisco for the third time in four years, winning the 2016 title after posting a semifinal-round win over NDSU — the only blemish on the Bison's 33-1 postseason record since '11.
FCS Championship Game: James Madison vs. North Dakota State
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 11 at 12 p.m. ET
Where: Toyota Stadium (Frisco, Texas)
Spread: James Madison -1.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Who will win the field position battle?
NDSU is No. 1 in the FCS in scoring defense and passing defense and No. 2 in total defense, while JMU is No. 1 in rushing defense and total defense and No. 3 in scoring defense, so explosive plays should be hard to come by. It's imperative for both teams to avoid long fields. Special teams will play into that scenario, but the offenses also can't afford three-and-outs to set up the other. Bison redshirt freshman quarterback Trey Lance, who hasn't thrown an interception in 277 attempts, and his counterpart, former Pittsburgh transfer Ben DiNucci, rank first and second, respectively nationally in passing efficiency and need to be as error-free as possible.
2. Can JMU stymie NDSU's run game?
NDSU's power run game has been unstoppable during its FCS dynasty, continuing this season with the Bison's highest rushing average — 288.0 yards per game — since 1996. The Bison have four rushers with more than 600 yards — Ty Brooks (940), Lance (934), Adam Cofield (789), and Kobe Johnson (660) — when no other FCS team has more than two. But JMU's rush defense is smothering, with no team going over 100 yards in the last nine games, and the Dukes allowing a mere 61.1 yards per game, which since 2008 has been topped only by McNeese's 2017 squad. Defensive ends Ron'Dell Carter and John Daka are first-team All-Americans who contain the edge, but it's important that linebacker Dimitri Holloway, the team's leading tackler, be fully recovered from a lower-leg injury suffered against Weber State in the semifinals.
3. Come out on top of the chess game
To underscore the strength of these programs, consider that one of the two head coaches is going to win a national title in his first season, and both of their predecessors did that already. Matt Entz has taken NDSU's reigns from Chris Klieman (first of four FCS titles in 2014) and moved into position to guide the first 16-0 squad in FCS history. Curt Cignetti has done what Mike Houston did at JMU in 2016 — beat every FCS opponent along the way to Frisco. This is the game to outcoach the opposing staff with good play-calling and time management, strong halftime adjustments and perhaps a surprise or two.
It may be surprising, but North Dakota State is a slight underdog to James Madison. Both national powers are built in the same mold, and anything but a close matchup would be surprising.
The Bison are closing out one of the most dominant decades in college football history — a 136-13 record to go along with the seven national titles. But the Dukes have stood up to them like no other FCS program, perhaps ready to halt the dynasty yet again.
Let's face it: This is a dream matchup.
Prediction: North Dakota State 21, James Madison 20
Last Week's Record: 2-0 (1.000)
Season Record: 105-47 (.691)
— Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.