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FRISCO, Texas -- Although James Madison and North Dakota State ended the 2018 season on much different notes, their paths to meeting in the 2019 season’s title game were similar. And the gap between them now feels immeasurable.
For the Dukes, an early exit from the FCS Playoffs with a loss to Colgate left them dejected, yet introspective. The road back to Frisco began that afternoon in the losing locker room.
“We made our minds up we didn't want a repeat of that,” said All-American defensive end Ron’Dell Carter. “We weren't doing that this year, period.”
Pollsters and pundits agreed, tabbing James Madison an almost-unanimous No. 2 in the preseason rankings -- distinction the Dukes held from Week 1 in Morgantown, West Virginia, to Saturday in Toyota Stadium.
But proving they earned that spot drove the Dukes from December 2018 to January 2020.
“Once we got into our summer workouts, we had this little thing, we call it a summer validation,” Carter said. “We're going to validate everything on why we [held] the No. 2 ranking.”
North Dakota State ended its 2018 campaign with the elation of yet another national championship, the program’s seventh in eight seasons.
Bison football occupies rarefied air in all of team sports, boasting more championships over a shorter period of time than such dynasties as Alabama football, the 1990s Chicago Bulls, the 1980s New York Islanders.
Among major team sports, only the John Wooden-coached UCLA basketball teams of the 1960s and 1970s have been more consistently dominant.
“As we get done with our careers, we'll look back on it and we'll see the impact that we had, just not on the state of North Dakota, but college football as a whole,” said Bison linebacker Jabril Cox. “We'll really cherish it.”
“Super thankful for the opportunity to be here. Living in the moment. This is all new to me this year, being the first-time starter and everything,” said quarterback Trey Lance. “Just trying to take it all in and enjoy it.”
Now, that line of tempered evaluation might be easily dismissed as the type of reserved, faux humility athletes are coached to deliver to media; an extension of coachspeak, if you will.
But considering the insightful point James Madison defensive back D’Angelo Amos made on Thursday -- that excellent teams can fall into a trap of complacency -- North Dakota State’s consistency verifies the downplayed sentiment.
So while the Bison’s 2018 season ended in confetti and elation, its journey to the 2019 title began almost as immediately as James Madison’s.
“We treat every year as a different year,” said NDSU coach Matt Entz. “There is no carryover. I'm going to go back to a couple years ago.
“I had a young man by the name of MJ Stumpf; he had won a national championship as a backup. We asked him, MJ, you won a national championship. His comment was, ‘Coach, I haven't won one yet. You only win them when you're a starter at NDSU.’”
New year, new team, and often the same result.
North Dakota State has not experienced a losing locker room yet since then, carrying the longest FCS winning streak of all-time into Saturday’s game at 36.
In contrast, James Madison opened the 2019 season with a loss, but it was a moment that quarterback Ben DiNucci said was as instrumental in shaping the championship run as falling out of the Playoffs last year.
“After the West Virginia game, I think in that locker room, there were a lot of heads that were not held low,” he said. “Being able to play a team like that, the way that we did, kind of physically dominate them up front, do some things, we kind of felt like, 'all right, this thing could happen.' We got to really put our foot down and go do it.”
Indeed, the Dukes went into a Big 12 Conference team’s building and, for the better part of 60 minutes, physically manhandled the Mountaineers. For 14 wins since, it’s been more of the same, with increasingly lopsided results.
As the two prepare to kick off in Frisco for their third postseason meeting in four seasons, the matchup feels like a coin flip. In the pre-Bowl Championship Series days of the FBS, JMU and NDSU could be named co-national champions and each would have equal claim to be argued for generations, not unlike Miami and Washington in 1991.
But the FCS only crowns outright winners, and it’s been that way since inception. So Saturday’s game pits the nation’s two best teams head-to-head in a matchup to crown the undisputed best.
Not everything about the National Championship is in the Bison or Dukes’ control. George Carlin’s famous stand-up bit declaring the superiority of football extolls the virtue of games played in driving wind and rain or snow.
But even Carlin might have shied from talking about tornadoes.
OK, so that might be for dramatic effect, but a tornado warning was issued for North Central Texas into Oklahoma on Friday afternoon. Rain fell on Frisco all day, though the meticulously prepared Toyota Stadium field found shelter under the tarp.
“I kind of like the weather forecast, to be honest with you,” said Cignetti with a Sahara-dry humorous tone.
James Madison advanced past Northern Iowa in the quarterfinals under a deluge of rain. It didn’t make for the easiest passing day for DiNucci, but the ground game controlled tempo while the Dukes defense came harder than the rainfall.
North Dakota State plays its games indoors at the Fargodome, where the temperature doesn’t dip below a comfortable 72 degrees.
“We'll be alright. We're from Fargo,” Lance said. “We practice in I'd like to think the worst. It was about negative 14 when we left Fargo. It will be like a spring game to us.”
Still, the possibility of high winds places particular importance on maximizing offensive opportunities. Entz said the team that scores first has the opportunity to dictate the tone of the entire afternoon.
That’s where the two units who have been at the forefront of almost every conversation leading up to this championship truly take center stage.
James Madison’s defensive line against North Dakota State’s offensive line -- which Entz is quick to point out goes by the nicknames of “Rams” -- promises to shape Saturday’s contest.
One might deem the emphasis on line play between these teams as a throwback, but that’s misleading. Look around the game, and James Madison and North Dakota State are cutting edge.
In the FCS Playoffs, the final four was made up of teams with outstanding lines that emphasized controlling the run on both sides of the field. JMU and NDSU just happen to be the best at it in the Subdivision.
In the FBS, Monday’s College Football Playoff Championship features defending champion Clemson, which has become something of a Defensive Linemen U in recent years. And while LSU has a record-setting Heisman Trophy winner in Joe Burrow, something else about the Bayou Bengals jumps out to North Dakota State’s Cordell Volson.
“Their offensive line is a ton of fun to watch, and you’ve always gotta go with the guys in the trenches,” he said when offering up his prediction.
Likewise in that sense, James Madison and North Dakota State aren’t throwing anything back; they are the trend-setters who the rest of the nation are trying to catch.
That gap right for most everyone else is wide right now. Between the Dukes and Bison, it’s as small as that space between where the linemen place their hands on the turf.