As 'Winter Camp' Ends, Dukes & Bison Are Ready To Roll

FRISCO, Texas -- The three-week layoff between the FCS semifinals and National Championship has a name at North Dakota State. 

“We call it Winter Camp, and we’ve been fortunate to have it quite a few times in the last few years,” said Bison offensive lineman Cordell Volson. “It’s a tradition we have now: You have spring ball, you have fall camp, and you have winter camp.” 

Before the FCS Championship moved to Frisco from Chattanooga, and the playoff field expanded from 16 to 20 (and now 24) teams, the title game immediately followed the semifinals. 

The Championship Game typically served as a Friday night prelude to FBS bowl season during the 2000s. For teams that reached the title round, it marked Game No. 15 in most campaigns; for James Madison and North Dakota State this season, it’s the 16th contest. 

That’s quite the grind to take on, one game after another. From a physical standpoint, the layoff provides some much needed time to get right ahead of the biggest game on the calendar. 

“It’s nice to relax from football, take a step away, get your body healed up,” said JMU wide receiver Riley Stapleton. 

The gap also offers some emotional downtime. Coinciding with Christmas, the players have an opportunity to visit their families before returning to business, and the time is a rare chance in a season to reflect. 

“The break is good,” said James Madison defensive back Rashad Robinson. “Time with family before you head back before New Year’s is special.” 

“I love the gap,” said North Dakota State offensive lineman Zack Johnson. “It really helps you to realize what you’re playing for, and take time to make sure you’re spending that time with your teammates.” 

A later championship game isn’t just an opportunity for the players involved to appreciate the magnitude of the moment. The FCS occupies its own place in the sport’s spotlight. 

The move to January now designates the FCS Championship as the penultimate game of the college football season, the last taste of the gridiron until late summer, save for the College Football Playoff. 

Similar to the expansion of the FCS Playoffs resulting in a later title game, the introduction of the College Football Playoff inched the FBS finale back. 

Monday’s championship tilt between Clemson and LSU -- where LSU is an overwhelming favorite among the players in Frisco asked for a prediction -- kicks off a full week later than the last BCS Championship Game in January 2014. 

With the College Football Playoff semifinals played on Dec. 28, the gap until Jan. 13 has induced plenty of groans asking why do we have to wait so long?! 

What would college football be without some kvetching? 

But while the gap between semis and championship does indeed feel long at a little more than two weeks, the title game participants went more than a month between games in the BCS era. 

That’s a week longer than the layoff the FCS Championship teams face after the semifinals, almost making this stretch leading up to Frisco comparable to a bowl game. 

“It gives the young guys a good chance to develop and learn new things,” Volson said. “For us [upperclassmen], it’s fun to see them compete.”

A common refrain at the FBS level champions the 15 practices allotted for bowl preparation as an early start to the next season. A similar approach ahead of the National Championship helps North Dakota State sustain the machine. 

For the underclassmen, Winter Camp’s an awful lot like August. 

“Man,” Phoenix Sproles, a freshman last year, incredulously exhaled when asked about Winter Camp before chuckling. “Six-thirty a.m. wake-up, 7 a.m. breakfast, practice, lift, meetings, maybe another meeting, team dinner, then do it all again the next day.” 

A springboard into another season might be an unintentional benefit, but for those who will play the bulk of the snaps come Championship Saturday, some antsiness can set in. 

Such is the case even for a senior set to play his last collegiate game, win or lose, like Stapleton. 

“Three weeks might be a bit much,” he said. “The biggest problem with it is I just get eager to play, especially being here and seeing the field. I wish we could play tonight.” 

Once that anticipation all comes to a head at kickoff, however, the wait will have been worth it. 

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