10 storylines of the FCS season
(STATS) - No. 1 vs. No. 2.
It's the best possible matchup for any championship game.
The College Football Playoff may not get that matchup and it only has a four-team field. But the 24-team FCS playoff field has whittled down to top-ranked Jacksonville State and second-ranked North Dakota State in the FCS Championship on Jan. 9 in Frisco, Texas.
Oh, No. 1 vs. No. 2 is the way the STATS FCS Top 25 had it in the final poll of the regular season, just hours before the playoff seeds were announced Nov. 22. For the playoffs, Jacksonville State was installed as the top seed and North Dakota State gained the third spot.
The storyline couldn't get any better than JSU, which hasn't lost to an FCS team and has been ranked No. 1 since Sept. 14, taking on an NDSU squad that still feels it's No. 1 as it tries to build on its record four straight FCS national titles.
But prior to the title game, plenty of other big storylines have comprised the 2015 season.
Here is a top 10 countdown of what stood out:
10. No Playoffs, No Problem - The three conferences that don't participate in the FCS playoffs had to be pleased with the exciting end to their seasons. The Ivy League (Dartmouth, Harvard and Penn) and Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (North Carolina A&T, North Carolina Central and Bethune-Cookman) finished in three-way ties for the titles. The Southwestern Athletic Conference led to its annual championship game, with Alcorn State beating Grambling State in a matchup of division winners. And then the MEAC and SWAC got together for the inaugural Celebration Bowl, with running back Tarik Cohen (295 yards) leading North Carolina A&T past Alcorn State 41-34.
9. Coastal Carolina Movin' on Up - Three days after the FCS Kickoff (Montana's 38-35 win over North Dakota State) provided a national spotlight for the subdivision, Big South power Coastal Carolina, one of the conference's founding members, announced its intentions to leave the FCS for the Sun Belt Conference of the FBS in 2017. This season was the Chanticleers' final one with Big South eligibility (9-3 overall) as they will play as an FCS independent in a transitional season next year. The move comes on the heels of Appalachian State and Georgia Southern, who combined to win nine FCS national titles, leaving the Southern Conference for the Sun Belt in 2014.
8. Civil War - Charleston, South Carolina, might have been the FCS epicenter this season (but don't tell the fans in Fargo, North Dakota, and Jacksonville, Alabama, that we said it). Charleston Southern rallied to a 33-20 win at The Citadel on Sept. 26 before their crosstown series was expected to take a hiatus. The effects of Hurricane Joaquin brought flooding to the city in early October, perhaps easing a little bad blood in the rivalry as the community banded together. Charleston Southern, picked third in the Big South, went on to win its conference title, and The Citadel, picked seventh in the Southern Conference, earned a share of its first title since 1992. The Bulldogs and their triple-option offense then ended the regular season with a 23-22 upset at South Carolina and eliminated CSU's Big South rival Coastal Carolina in the FCS playoffs. It created a crosstown rematch in the second round, and host Charleston Southern beat The Citadel again 14-6 before a record crowd at Buccaneer Field.
7. Big Sky's Big Season - Make no mistake, the Missouri Valley Football Conference has become the strongest conference in the FCS. But the Big Sky came back in a big way this season after a subpar 2014. The largest FCS conference placed nine of its 13 teams in the national rankings throughout the season and the title race was turned upside down from a year ago. Preseason co-favorites Eastern Washington and Montana State didn't factor in as Southern Utah - 3-9 last season - won an outright championship in a thrilling finish, with fellow playoff qualifiers Portland State (also 3-9 in 2014) and Montana one game behind in the standings.
6. "Drive For Five" - So the Missouri Valley being the strongest conference? Yeah, it can thank North Dakota State for leading the way. The flagship program of the FCS is headed back to Frisco in search of a fifth straight title. The Bison have shared the national spotlight this season, but there hasn't been a significant drop-off with their dynasty. They're 12-2, losing to Montana and South Dakota on the final play of both games, and coach Chris Klieman and the Bison have watched a number of new standouts emerge alongside the championship veterans. The Bison have been dominating in the playoffs, setting up the highly anticipated championship game with Jacksonville State.
5. Quarterback Injuries - The FCS season has been sensational despite injuries to the biggest names at the most influential position - quarterback. Villanova's John Robertson, the 2014 FCS offensive player of the year, had his senior season ended by a knee injury in September. North Dakota State's Carson Wentz, the most outstanding player of last year's national championship game and a potential first- or second-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, has missed the last eight games because of a wrist injury. James Madison senior Vad Lee was having perhaps the best season among FCS QBs when he suffered a foot injury in October, ending his college career. What's that saying about bad things happening in threes?
4. Playoff Bracket Unrest - Conference commissioners even complained publicly about this year's 24-team playoff field, causing waves in a usually unified FCS. There's always going to be discussion about the final at-large teams making the field and the teams left just outside it. But the field has become highly regionalized - too much so for many people's taste. All five Missouri Valley qualifiers were put on one side of the bracket, which meant the title game couldn't become another de facto Valley championship, as was the case last season when North Dakota State beat Illinois State in the first final between teams from the same conference. Six of the eight second-round matchups were rematches from the regular season, which created more debate over whether that's good for the FCS or not.
3. #BarnyBall - The hashtag sounds comical, but what Portland State inflicted on opponents was quite serious. Bruce Barnum felt he was on a "one-year interview" as the Vikings' interim coach as he turned around a three-win team last year to a nine-win squad this season. Along the way, they knocked off two FBS opponents (Washington State 24-17 and North Texas 66-7 for the largest-ever FCS win against the higher level), beat five ranked FCS teams, was the only Big Sky school to beat conference champion Southern Utah and earned the program's second FCS playoff bid. Oh yes, forget the interim title with Barnum; Portland State gave the STATS FCS Coach of the Year a five-year extension in mid-October.
2. Jacksonville State is No. 1 - In an FCS season of unpredictable results, Jacksonville State has been a constant, sweeping through the Ohio Valley Conference for the second consecutive year and losing only in overtime at Auburn. The Gamecocks won the 1992 NCAA Division II championship, but ironically had never been voted No. 1 because the final poll that year occurred after the regular season. Coach John Grass' 13-1 squad was No. 1 over the final 11 weeks of the regular season and enters the national championship game on a 12-game winning streak. The Gamecocks had the most STATS FCS All-Americans with five, led by first-team quarterback Eli Jenkins, also the OVC offensive player of the year.
1. Pete Rozelle Must Have Meant the FCS - Starting with Montana's last-second win over North Dakota State in the FCS Kickoff on Aug. 29, it was hard for most FCS teams to avoid the parity of the season. It's one thing when a number of top FCS teams lose to FBS opponents in an early season weekend, but as late as Nov. 7, six top 10 teams - No. 2 Illinois State, No. 3 Chattanooga, No. 4 Eastern Washington, No. 5 Richmond, No. 7 Sam Houston State and No. 10 Portland State - lost games on the same Saturday. Fewer than half of the conferences had their preseason favorites go on to capture their titles, and only two were outright champions (Jacksonville State in the OVC and Alcorn State in the SWAC). Plus, McNeese State, the only unbeaten team in the regular season, was bounced in its first playoff game. The wild season has led up to the two best teams reaching the national title game, but there were plenty of twists and turns along the way.