When the top two seeds in a 16-team playoff make it through to the championship game, it usually means the right teams made it to the final.
And, yes, does the FCS championship game matchup between No. 1-seeded South Dakota State and No. 2 Sam Houston feel oh-so-right.
One of these two national powers is going to capture its first national championship on Sunday in Frisco, Texas. South Dakota State (8-1) has advanced through three playoff games with brute power — both in the run game and on defense — and Sam Houston (9-0) with explosiveness as well as moxie — holding off opponents with late-game bids to either go ahead or force a tie.
Both programs have been eliminated in the playoffs by the eventual national champion five times since 2011 — against North Dakota State four times and James Madison once — but they have exorcised some demons in the last month. Sam Houston's K.C. Keeler is attempting to become the first head coach to lead two different schools to the FCS championship, having won the 2003 title at Delaware.
FCS Championship Game: No. 2 Sam Houston vs. No. 1 South Dakota State
Kickoff: Sunday, May 16 at 2 p.m. ET
Where: Toyota Stadium (Frisco, Texas)
Spread: South Dakota State -5.5
When Sam Houston Has the Ball
The Bearkats want to use their excellent team speed to negate a free-flowing, physical South Dakota State defense, which has surrendered only a field goal in three of the team's last five games. Quarterback Eric Schmid is playing with great confidence, having led the Southland champs through the stronger half of the playoff bracket.
Schmid is averaging more than 331 yards of offense per game, throwing for 17 TDs and rushing for eight more. At his disposal is one of the FCS' more dangerous players in wide receiver Jequez Ezzard, who is averaging 26.9 yards per catch with seven TDs over 28 receptions. Ezzard's game-breaking speed draws extra coverage and opens room for wide receivers Ife Adeyi and Cody Chrest, as well as Noah Smith working out of the backfield.
It's imperative that Schmid releases quickly and that the Colby Thomas-led offensive line keeps him upright because SDSU is coming off a demolition of Delaware, when defensive end Reece Winkelman, nose tackle Caleb Sanders and linebacker Logan Backhaus lived in the Blue Hens' backfield. If the SDSU defenders aren't careful, though, Bearkats running back Ramon Jefferson (656 rushing yards on six yards a pop) has the speed to get to the second level.
Under offensive coordinator Ryan Carty, Sam Houston averages 450 offensive yards and 39 points per game — both top 10 in the FCS. SDSU surrenders 281 yards per game as well as only 14 points per game, ranking second among teams that played more than two games.
When South Dakota State Has the Ball
The TV cameras usually follow the ball carrier, but make sure you keep an eye up front because the Jackrabbits' offensive line versus the Bearkats' defensive line will be a slobber-knocker, as they say up in the Dakotas. The Jackrabbits are averaging 231 rushing yards per game on six yards per carry, which ranks second in the FCS. The Bearkats haven't allowed an opposing 100-yard rusher in their last 20 games — holding opponents to just 2.2 yards per game, which is second among teams that played more than one game this season.
Head coach John Stiegelmeier and offensive coordinator Jason Eck can get creative, like running back Pierre Strong Jr. throwing a touchdown pass to quarterback Mark Gronowski in the semifinal rout of Delaware, but staying grounded is their strength. Strong (650), fellow back Isaiah Davis (640), and Gronowski (567) give the Missouri Valley power three players with more than 500 rushing yards, and they've combined for all 17 of the team's TDs on the ground. All-America right tackle Garret Greenfield anchors an O-line that averages 6-foot-5, 301 pounds per starter.
Still, the Bearkats get into backfields from all directions, totaling 95 tackles for 373 yards in losses, and the Jahari Kay-led defense has done well to defend running teams Monmouth, North Dakota State, and James Madison in the playoffs. The Bearkats will want to force the Jackrabbits into passing situations, although Gronowski has thrown for an efficient 15 TDs against only three interceptions, often using play-action deception. Helping him are the Janke twins, wide receivers Jaxon (6-2, 210) and Jadon (6-3, 210), who use good size to their advantage.
Overall, SDSU averages 408 offensive yards and 30 points per game, while Sam Houston surrenders 356 yards and just under 20 points per contest.
These two teams couldn't be more battle-tested because South Dakota State navigated the Missouri Valley Football Conference wars and is 5-1 versus nationally-ranked opponents, while Sam Houston is 6-0, including the playoff sweep of pre-eminent FCS powers North Dakota State and James Madison. Both teams have been in their share of close games in the fourth quarter.
It feels like South Dakota State and Sam Houston equally are teams of destiny, but playing in the MVFC gives an edge to the Jackrabbits.
Prediction: South Dakota State 28, Sam Houston 20
— 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 of Jason Salzman/South Dakota State Athletics)