There may be no dynasty in college football history as impressive as North Dakota State’s. And there will be no debating that premise if the Bison win two more games this postseason and capture their sixth straight FCS national championship.
While North Dakota State winning at home inside the Fargodome has been a sure thing during its dynasty, James Madison just may be the right team to rise up and topple the Bison. The Dukes are the highest-scoring team in the FCS, averaging 49.6 points per game, and it’s been a 60-point average through two playoff wins. They join the Bison as arguably the most complete teams in the FCS.
Let the champs from the two top FCS conferences – NDSU (12-1) plays in the Missouri Valley Football Conference and JMU (12-1) is from CAA Football – get it on.
The winner will play either Youngstown State (11-3) or No. 2 seed Eastern Washington (12-1) in the championship game Jan. 7 at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas.
FCS Semifinal: No. 4 seed James Madison (12-1) at No. 1 seed North Dakota State (12-1)
Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 16 at 7 p.m. ET
Where: Fargodome (Fargo, N.D.)
TV Channel: ESPN2
Three Things to Watch
1. Dome sweet dome
Friday night lights figure to whip the Fargodome crowd into a frenzy, and that isn’t good news for the visiting Dukes. This decade, no home-field advantage has been quite like North Dakota State’s – the Bison are 55-5 there over the past seven seasons and none of the losses have been against a team from outside the Missouri Valley. Bison fans can taste a sixth straight trip to Frisco. They know to be quiet when the home team has the ball and ear-shattering when the opponent has it. Playing with a lead would solve a lot of issues for James Madison. Of course, getting a lead against the Bison is the first step.
2. JMU’s needs a Schor thing on offense
The mobility of James Madison quarterback Bryan Schor is vital in this matchup. In North Dakota State’s lone loss to South Dakota State, Jackrabbits quarterback Taryn Christion picked up 141 rushing yards on scrambles and designed plays. The second- and third-most damage on the ground by an opposing signal-caller came in close NDSU wins, from South Dakota’s Chris Streveler (63 yards, TD) and Eastern Washington’s Gage Gubrud (49, TD). Schor has rushed for 534 yards and 10 touchdowns, including four games of at least 70 yards and a score. Under pressure, he is going to have to step up from the pocket and reach the second level of NDSU’s defense. His improvising can find vulnerability.
3. Whose special teams will be more special?
North Dakota State was exceptional in this phase of the game during its playoff run last year, especially with punting and on returns. This year, the Bison haven’t had as much production, although kick returner Bruce Anderson and punt returner Eric Perkins have great experience and placekicker Cam Pedersen can hit from distance and has connected on seven of his last eight field goal attempts. James Madison has scored seven touchdowns on returns, including in both of their playoff wins – Brandon Ravenel on a kickoff versus New Hampshire and Rashard Davis’ punt return for a score last Friday against Sam Houston State was his fourth of the season. JMU’s net average on punts (38.2 yards) is better than NDSU punter Jackson Koonce’s regular average (36.9).
This game is going to be won in the trenches because both teams want to run the ball foremost. North Dakota State’s starting offensive line brings plenty of size (averages 6-5, 312) and often bulldozes through opponents in the power run game. James Madison head coach Mike Houston says no one should mistake his team for a finesse squad, and that the Dukes are physical. JMU may not stack up on the defensive line (averaging 6-4, 255 per starter), but the offensive front (6-4, 296) has a big enough edge over the Bison’s defensive linemen (6-3, 258).
There’s an aura surrounding head coach Chris Klieman’s Bison. They don’t think they’re going to lose even when behind. It will take a team that’s as talented as James Madison to get the Bison to play not to lose instead of playing to win.
Let’s face it, picking against North Dakota State has been foolish for a long time, but James Madison also has proven it has more than a puncher’s chance.
Prediction: North Dakota State 27, James Madison 26
— 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 North Dakota State University Athletics)