Controversy isn’t as inherent when it comes to the Football Championship Subdivision title as it is in the the subdivision’s bowl counterpart, but matchups between No. 1 and No. 2 are surprisingly rare.
Since expansion of the field in the 2010 season, the National Championship Game has featured a 1 vs. 2 meeting just twice prior to Saturday’s James Madison-North Dakota State showdown.
With the college football spotlight belonging exclusively to the FCS, the game could not have two better representatives.
The Dukes and Bison meeting in Frisco felt like an inevitability for much of the season — and not just due to the recent dominance of the two programs.
Yes, the two programs combine for every championship since 2011. The two join FBS powers Alabama and Clemson as the only Div. I programs with three national title game appearances in the last four years.
But more specific to these teams, the 2019 season’s version of James Madison and North Dakota State football, they ran the table in the regular season in the top two of the polls.
Dukes coach Curt Cignetti did not come into the campaign with quite the same lofty evaluation of his team that pollsters had.
“When the polls came out people had us 1 or 2...I didn't see us quite like that coming out of spring ball,” he said. “But we became that kind of team through fall camp and the season.”
Cignetti has pointed to the mid-October win over Villanova as a critical juncture in the Dukes’ elevating their game to a championship level. Since that come-from-behind victory, James Madison’s won every game by at least 16 points.
The last two wins in the FCS Playoffs marked the Dukes’ closest (30-14 vs. Weber State in the semifinals) and tied-for-second-closest (17-0 vs. Northern Iowa in the quarterfinals). And yet, neither at any point ever felt close.
Such has been James Madison’s dominance.
North Dakota State’s road back to Frisco faced somewhat more resistance. The Bison escaped from South Dakota State with a one-touchdown win the last week of October, then slugged their way out of a 9-3 encounter against Illinois State in the quarterfinals.
To suggest that any undefeated team has been anything other than dominant, however, misses the mark -- much less an undefeated team that extended a record-setting win streak to 36 games.
Yet, with coaching changes after Chris Klieman’s departure for Kansas State, some of the same skepticism Cignetti described at James Madison existed in Fargo.
“We felt confident going into spring ball that we were going to be a good football team and have possibilities of winning some games,” first-year Bison head coach Matt Entz said. “Maybe surprising some people just because of the youthfulness of our roster.”
Alright, so what would have been surprising is if the Bison weren’t in Frisco. But by standard expectation-setting logic, North Dakota State would have been a prime candidate to take a step back with a first-year head coach and freshman quarterback.
When the freshman quarterback is Trey Lance, a mold-smashing freshman who’s a finalist for the Walter Payton Award, however, that changes expectations.
The Bison are 15-0 and heading back to Frisco for the national championship after a 42-14 semifinal win over Montana State. pic.twitter.com/If1aC6Bvbm— NDSU Football (@NDSUfootball) December 22, 2019
Lance follows two quarterbacks in the NFL, Carson Wentz and Easton Stick, and has the game to continue that trend. North Dakota State has plenty more pro-caliber talent, too, like Dillon Radunz.
Few teams can match the Bison’s talent level -- James Madison is an exception.
The Dukes have their own future pros, two at the same position with Ron’Dell Carter and John Daka, no less.
In all phases -- talent, history, play throughout the season -- this National Championship Game is a true barometer of the undisputed best team in the FCS. A matchup of this magnitude deserves the undivided attention of the football-watching nation.