James Madison entered November without a win over a top-25 team, but that changed in the money portion of the season as the Dukes won their second FCS national championship.
Behind first-year head coach Mike Houston, James Madison beat nationally ranked teams in six of its final seven games, including a playoff sweep of New Hampshire, previously unbeaten Sam Houston State, five-time defending national champion North Dakota State and then Youngstown State, 28-14, in the FCS title game.
"You're the best team in the nation. At the end of the year, every college football program in the country has this goal,“ Houston said.
So is the NDSU dynasty over and it’s an all-new FCS? Not necessarily, but James Madison and its terrific talent just may be the team to beat again next season.
As far as this season, the Dukes earned their national championship considering who they beat from November on.
Here is the final 2016 Athlon Sports FCS Power Poll:
1. James Madison
(14-1, 8-0 CAA Football)
Preseason Ranking: 14
Final Regular-Season Ranking: 5
The seniors helped lead the way in the championship game win over Youngstown State. Running back Khalid Abdullah rushed for 101 yards and two touchdowns while earning the most outstanding player award, and linebacker Gage Steele had six tackles, two sacks and a pass breakup. The Dukes won their final 12 games, losing only to an FBS program (North Carolina) this season.
2. North Dakota State
(12-2, 7-1 Missouri Valley)
Preseason Ranking: 1
Final Regular-Season Ranking: 1
The Bison played the toughest schedule in the FCS, with their 27-17 loss to James Madison in the national semifinals their 10th game against a ranked opponent. Oddly, their two losses came within the friendly confines of the Fargodome. Consider head coach Chris Klieman’s squad quite motivated this offseason.
3. Youngstown State
(12-4, 6-2 Missouri Valley)
Preseason Ranking: 22
Final Regular-Season Ranking: 14
Bo Pelini helped the former FCS power get back to an elite level in his second season coaching in his hometown. The Missouri Valley Conference squad overcame a lot of adversity and fourth-quarter deficits this season, but the Penguins were fairly non-competitive in the national title game.
4. Eastern Washington
(12-2, 8-0 Big Sky)
Preseason Ranking: 12
Final Regular-Season Ranking: 2
Cooper Kupp is NFL-bound as the most accomplished wide receiver in FCS history and sophomore quarterback Gage Gubrud set the subdivision’s single-season record with 5,160 passing yards. The Eagles were denied a trip to the FCS championship game by a last-second loss to Youngstown State in the national semifinals.
5. Sam Houston State
(12-1, 9-0 Southland)
Preseason Ranking: 2
Final Regular-Season Ranking: 4
The Bearkats were the only FCS team to go unbeaten in the regular season, but they were swamped by James Madison, 65-7, in the national quarterfinals. Head coach K.C. Keeler will welcome back a lot of talented players, including quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe, who threw for an FCS-record 57 touchdowns this season.
(10-4, 6-2 Southern)
Preseason Ranking: Unranked
Final Regular-Season Ranking: 19
The Terriers won the South Carolina FCS title with wins over Charleston Southern and The Citadel in the playoffs. Their senior-laden team will be hard-pressed to replace fullback Lorenzo Long after he led the Southern Conference with 1,424 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns.
(10-4, 5-3 CAA)
Preseason Ranking: 4
Final Regular-Season Ranking: 11
The Spiders won two playoff games after losing starting quarterback Kyle Lauletta to an ACL tear in the regular-season finale. Shortly after the season, head coach Danny Rocco resigned to move across the CAA to Delaware and the Spiders quickly hired Chattanooga's Russ Huesman, their defensive coordinator on the 2008 national championship team.
8. South Dakota State
(9-4, 7-1 Missouri Valley)
Preseason Ranking: 8
Final Regular-Season Ranking: 7
A win over co-Missouri Valley champ North Dakota State at the Fargodome in mid-October highlighted the Jackrabbits’ season. No opposing team – the Bison included – will be anxious to to deal with the triumvirate of quarterback Taryn Christion, tight end Dallas Goedert and wide reveiver Jake Wieneke next season.
9. Jacksonville State
(10-2, 7-0 Ohio Valley)
Preseason Ranking: 5
Final Regular-Season Ranking: 3
Gamecocks coach John Grass hasn’t lost an OVC game in his three seasons, but sandwiched around his team’s 2015 national runner-up finish are two second-round fizzles at home – this year against Youngstown State. They swept the OVC’s postseason awards: Grass (coach), quarterback Eli Jenkins (offensive), defensive end Darius Jackson (defensive) and safety Marlon Bridges (freshman).
10. The Citadel
(10-2, 8-0 Southern)
Preseason Ranking: 10
Final Regular-Season Ranking: 6
First-year head coach Brent Thompson led the SoCon champion Bulldogs to a perfect conference record for the first time in school history. Behind senior fullback Tyler Renew, they paced the FCS in rushing yards per game (348.2).
(9-4, 6-2 CAA Football)
Preseason Ranking: 20
Final Regular-Season Ranking: 12
Head coach Andy Talley enjoyed a fitting final season before heading into retirement as the Wildcats won a home playoff game and reached the second round. His defense led the FCS in fewest points (15.0) and yards (259.8) allowed per game.
12. Coastal Carolina
(10-2 FCS Independent)
Preseason Ranking: 9
Final Regular-Season Ranking: 13
Injuries led to a merry-go-round at quarterback in the Chanticleers’ final season on the FCS level. When they move to the Sun Belt next season, they won’t get to lean on departing running back De’Angelo Henderson.
(9-4, 6-2 Southern)
Preseason Ranking: 7
Final Regular-Season Ranking: 9
With Russ Huesman off to Richmond, the Mocs hired up-and-coming head coach Tom Arth from Division III semifinalist John Carroll. He inherits a team that won a playoff game for the third straight season, but it will lose a dominant senior trio in defensive end Keionta Davis, offensive lineman Corey Levin and running back Derrick Craine.
14. North Dakota
(9-3, 8-0 Big Sky)