If the North Dakota State-James Madison showdown doesn’t become the top-rated FCS broadcast in history, then college football fans haven’t been paying attention.
The record number for the FCS — 1.98 million watching the 2016 playoff quarterfinal between North Dakota State and South Dakota State — came in the round prior to James Madison ending the Bison’s record five-year reign as FCS champion in the semifinals.
Not quite as many watched that game when James Madison handled the Bison, 27-17, on the way to winning the national title, but there’s no reason to miss this year’s clash of titans — with the buildup basically over a year in the making. The Dukes will try to continue a 26-game winning streak by claiming back-to-back titles, while the Bison hope to return to the top perch in their sixth title game appearance in seven years.
“I think it's a situation (where) we have the two best teams in the country matched up,” JMU second-year head coach Mike Houston said. “I think it's one where it's going to be a pretty intense, heated ball game, I'm sure, because I think that there is starting to become a little bit of a rivalry between the two schools.”
FCS Championship Game: No. 2 seed North Dakota State (13-1) vs. No. 1 seed James Madison (14-0)
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 6 at noon. ET
Where: Toyota Stadium (Frisco, Texas)
TV Channel: ESPN2
Three Things to Watch
1. Controlling the line of scrimmage
North Dakota State linemen, both offensive and defensive, have routinely powered over opponents during the Bison dynasty, creating lopsided times of possession. But in a short period of time, James Madison head coach Mike Houston and his staff have built the Dukes in the same physical mold. So winning the line of scrimmage is vital to both teams.
The Bison are pounding out 282.1 rushing yards per game — their highest average since 1996 — with junior running back Bruce Anderson particularly hot entering the final (575 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns in the last four games). Conversely, the Bison’ 4-3 defense is active up front, racking up 37 sacks while ranking seventh in the FCS against the run.
Just as NDSU has overcome the midseason loss of No. 1 running back Lance Dunn, James Madison has done well to replace Cardon Johnson after an early season-ending injury. Marcus Marshall has followed the lead of his big linemen in the playoffs, and the Dukes are averaging 201.5 rushing yards for the season. Also employing a 4-3 defensive alignment, they have a whopping 48 sacks and rank sixth nationally against the run. All-America defensive end Andrew Ankrah is the one to fear most.
2. A free pass for the Dukes?
While James Madison wants to establish the run game, it has reason to let star quarterback Bryan Schor loose. First off, he passed for 242 yards and three touchdowns in the 2016 playoff win over North Dakota State. But more concerning for the Bison is both of their starting cornerbacks, Jalen Allison and Jaylaan Wimbush, suffered knee injuries in the semifinals. Originally considered “doubtful” for the championship game by fourth-year head coach Chris Klieman, the Bison announced on New Year’s Day one will start opposite sophomore Marquise Bridges, who doesn’t have a start in his career.
Schor has plenty of targets in the passing game and figures to take shots at the secondary. In the Bison’s Tampa-2 defense, All-America safeties Tre Dempsey and Robbie Grimsley can provide help and linebacker Jabril Cox can drop into pass coverage, but the Bison are tasked with getting pressure on Schor.
3. Limit the mistakes
As impressive as North Dakota State has been in forcing 33 turnovers and posting a plus-17 turnover margin, the Dukes have been even better, forcing 43 turnovers for a plus-24 — the best numbers in the FCS. They’ve scored a whopping 245 points off the takeaways.
But James Madison can play too aggressively at times because it averages 68.6 yards in penalties — much more than the Bison’s 44.4-yard average.
The point is, both programs are make opponents pay for their mistakes, so they’ll need to play at a fast pace, but mostly error-free.
No matter how you slice it, this title game is a toss-up — power versus power, speed versus speed, experience versus experience. It’s the matchup so many people expected to see in the championship game.
Regardless of how history is made Saturday, it’s must-see TV if you’re not among the lucky ones inside Toyota Stadium.
Prediction: North Dakota State 24, James Madison 21
— 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.
(Photo courtesy James Madison University Athletics)