JSU, NDSU deciding No. 1 on the field
(STATS) - There's an odd factor with North Dakota State's attempt to become the first team in NCAA history to capture five straight national championships.
As NDSU gets sets to face Jacksonville State in the FCS title game Jan. 9 in Frisco, Texas, it's the Gamecocks - not the reigning champion Bison and their dynasty - who have been ranked No. 1 for most of the 2015 season.
Maybe the Bison have noticed?
"We've kind of played with a chip on our shoulder," middle linebacker Nick DeLuca said.
Some people would recognize the Bison to be the best FCS team as long as their 19-game winning streak in the postseason remains intact. New Hampshire coach Sean McDonnell even called North Dakota State the No. 1 team after his squad grabbed the top ranking late in the 2014 regular season.
The Bison proved that to be true by winning their fourth straight national championship, which matched the Division III Augustana (Ill.) teams of 1983-86 for the longest title streak in NCAA history.
North Dakota State entered the 2015 season No. 1 but lost its opening game at Montana, and that opened the door for Sam Houston State to become No. 1 for a week before Jacksonville State claimed it Sept. 14. The Gamecocks (13-1), whose only loss was at Auburn in overtime, have captured an FCS-high 12 straight wins since then, including against three top-10 opponents in the playoffs as the No. 1 seed.
North Dakota State (12-2), ranked second in the final regular-season poll but the No. 3 seed for the playoffs, brings an eight-game win streak into the championship game.
"That's where you set the bar at and that's where the standard has been for the past four years," Jacksonville State coach John Grass said. "The road goes through them to win it."
North Dakota State entered each of the past four title games unbeaten or with one loss. It's not as though the Bison are far off from the standard this season, having lost only by three points to both Montana and South Dakota on the final offensive play in each game. They have a combined 70-5 record over the last five seasons.
In one way, not being No. 1 has helped the Bison, who still get to decide No. 1 when it matters most.
"I think it's actually taken a little bit of stress off us," wide receiver Zach Vraa said. "Being ranked No. 1, everybody is after us, their only concern is knocking off the No. 1 team. Being ranked 2, 3, 4, 5, whatever we've been in those past few weeks, teams definitely still want to beat us because of our past and they know we've won four in a row. But not being ranked as that No. 1 has kind of put less stress and pressure on us, which is kind of nice."
In a sports world full of the "us-against-the-world" mentality, even No. 1 Jacksonville State has defused some of its pressure. Senior cornerback Jermaine Hough says the Gamecocks have had somewhat of an underdog role after last season's disappointing home loss to Sam Houston State as the No. 3 seed in the second round.
The Gamecocks avenged the defeat with a 62-10 blowout of Sam Houston in the national semifinals two weeks ago. So they have their anticipated spot in the national title game, and against North Dakota State, just a year later than they expected.
"We definitely have to bring it to them - definitely, no question," Hough said. "They're used to that environment, it's our first appearance (in the FCS final). We just have to come in and play our game.
"I think it's our time to go and make a statement this game."
A statement about who is No. 1 in the FCS.