At least one CAA Football or Missouri Valley Football Conference team has appeared in the FCS national championship game in every season since 2002, yet the two top conferences in the subdivision haven’t been frequent dance partners.
North Dakota State’s win over Towson in the 2013 final had been the only championship game meeting between the two conferences until this year’s unlikely matchup, with CAA champ and No. 4 seed James Madison and unseeded Youngstown State advancing by winning their semifinal games on the road and without some key suspended players.
But both teams have earned their way to Frisco, Texas, and their first meeting in more than 10 years (YSU has a 3-1 series lead) will conclude the always wild 24-team playoffs in the second-to-last game of the college football season on Saturday.
FCS Championship Game: Youngstown State (12-3) vs. No. 4 seed James Madison (13-1)
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 7 at 12 p.m. ET
Where: Toyota Stadium (Frisco, Texas)
TV Channel: ESPN2
Three Things to Watch
1. When last we saw them...
It’s OK to joke that neither team has played since last year because, well, there’s a bowl-like buildup from the FCS semifinals to the final – three weeks in between – which wasn’t the case in the FCS playoffs until 2010. Not accustomed to that layoff, Youngstown State and James Madison both seek early rhythm and to not fall behind the other. The leading rushers on both teams hope to regain their playoff mojo. YSU’s Jody Webb hasn’t been below 100 rushing yards and is averaging 157 on the ground through four playoff wins, while JMU’s 5-foot-10, 225-pound All-American Khalid Abdullah showed the speed and power of an NFL back (231 yards from scrimmage) in the Dukes’ semifinal win over FCS dynasty North Dakota State.
2. Sustaining drives
Both teams use the run to set up the pass, and controlling the game clock is pivotal. Youngstown State ranks third in the FCS in average time of possession (34 minutes, 2 seconds), and the Penguins get it done with the run game (Webb and Tevin McCaster, who had three touchdowns in the semifinals). James Madison is more balanced offensively behind quarterback Bryan Schor’s run-pass skills. The Dukes are averaging 48 points per game and converting 51.4 percent of their third downs with an even better 57.1 percent on fourth-down attempts. They like the physicality of their offensive line.
3. The third phase of the game
Although they rarely get their due, special teams play a big part of football. Youngstown State’s excellent set of young kickers, left-footed sophomore placekicker Zak Kennedy and freshman punter Mark Schuler, give the Penguins a leg up on James Madison. But the Dukes can reverse momentum rather quickly as they have scored touchdowns on six kickoff returns (Rashard Davis has four) and on one punt return. Add in that one of Youngstown State’s suspended players (Darien Townsend) handled punt returns and many kickoffs and JMU’s advantage is even greater.
Give credit to both teams for overcoming adversity on the way to the championship game. It’s paid off for Youngstown State coach Bo Pelini and James Madison counterpart Mike Houston that they’ve filled their staffs with experienced assistants – both on the FBS and FCS levels.
James Madison has been the most complete team in the FCS, from a high-powered offense to an athletic defense to the unmatched return game. Youngstown State, which has beaten No. 2 seed Eastern Washington and No. 3 seed Jacksonville State on the road, also has significant talent outside the quarterback position, and junior Hunter Wells has stepped in during the second half of the season to provide consistency there.
But the suspensions in the playoffs – presumably following NCAA random drug tests – may catch up to the Penguins a little more. They lost fewer players (five) than James Madison (seven), but it includes second-leading rusher Martin Ruiz; wide receiver Darien Townsend, who leads the team in receiving yards; and safeties Jameel Smith and LeRoy Alexander, their No. 2 and 3 tacklers, respectively. JMU’s losses include linebacker Brandon Hereford, the team’s No. 1 tackler prior to the semifinals, and No. 2 wide receiver Terrence Alls.
Said Houston: “Probably the biggest key is for us to just be us. If you talk to Coach Pelini, he’ll probably say the same thing. You get into this ball game and you have to be careful that you don’t let the stage be too big that you forget what got you here.”
Prediction: James Madison 27, Youngstown State 17
— 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.
(Top photo by James Madison Athletics)