Top story lines of the 2016 FCS season

(STATS) - The 2016 FCS season kicked off with a terrific game in August, but, oh, does it need an even better one in the national championship game on Jan. 7.

In between, there's been yet another memorable season of story lines. But one of the bigger ones isn't positive as the two finalists with a national championship history - Youngstown State and James Madison - will be without players due to recent suspensions.

Following is a countdown of top story lines. We've made it an unlucky 13 because of the awkward finish to the season.

13. Better With Balance - After the 2015 FCS playoff field drew criticism, and eventually a tweak in bracketing rules, there was less regionalization and fewer repeated matchups in this year's field. The finalists have come out of the two top conferences, the Missouri Valley and CAA Football, and those two conferences were joined by the Big Sky and Southern conferences with four playoff qualifiers each.

12. Wildest Ride of All - Charleston Southern took North Dakota State to overtime in the season-opening FCS Kickoff, then the Buccaneers' season turned bizarre. Injuries made for a merry-go-round at quarterback. Coach Jamey Chadwell and an assistant received one-game suspensions for impermissible social media contact with a high school player. Thirty-two players were suspended one game each for NCAA rules violations that stemmed from the misuse of financial aid allocated for books. Hurricane Matthew forced the cancellation of a non-conference game. After an upset loss at home to Gardner-Webb, the Bucs needed to win their final two games to repeat as a conference champ and reach the playoffs, which they did. Then, mercifully, their emotionally draining season ended with a first-round loss at Wofford.

11. Hello and Goodbye - The FCS welcomed 19 new coaches this season, East Tennessee State returned to the Southern Conference, Prairie View A&M, New Hampshire, South Dakota State and William & Mary all had new or renovated stadiums, Idaho announced it would return to the Big Sky in 2018, and Campbell and North Alabama announced future moves to the Big South. Meanwhile, Andy Talley coached his 32nd and final season at Villanova, winning his final home game in the playoffs, and Coastal Carolina went 10-2 in its last season on the FCS level (it's heading to the Sun Belt next season).

10. Back to the Future - About 50 former players returned to Youngstown State on Oct. 15 to celebrate the 25th anniversary season of the Penguins' 1991 squad winning the first of four FCS national titles under coach Jim Tressel during the 1990s. Some of the players surely will descend on Frisco, Texas, on Jan. 7. Not only did the Penguins return to the playoffs for the first time in 10 years, but they've qualified for the national championship game against James Madison. Tight end Kevin Rader's game-winning catch on the back of an Eastern Washington defender with 1 second remaining in their national semifinal is the play of the year.

9. 10 Not So Perfect - The unpredictability of the FCS level was most apparent on Sept. 17, when 10 ranked teams lost on the same day, from No. 2 Richmond on down. Also falling were No. 5 Illinois State, No. 9 South Dakota State, No. 10 Northern Iowa, No. 11 James Madison, No. 14 McNeese, No. 17 Coastal Carolina, No. 18 North Carolina A&T, No. 19 Portland State and No. 22 New Hampshire.

8. 10 Feels Perfect - Eastern Washington coach Beau Baldwin points out that special things don't happen by accident. In September, 10 FCS teams posted wins over FBS programs, tying for the fourth-most in a season. Half were against Power-Five conference teams, with Eastern Washington (Washington State) joined by Illinois State (Northwestern) North Dakota State (Iowa), Northern Iowa (Iowa State) and Richmond (Virginia).

7. Top Teams Kept Winning - Upset Saturday notwithstanding, the top-ranked teams fell into a groove while others below them kept flip-flopping positions in the national polls and conference races. Sam Houston State, Jacksonville State, Eastern Washington and North Dakota State represented the top four in some order over the final 10 STATS FCS Top 25 polls of the regular season.

6. And Then There Was JMU - One of the teams right behind the top four for much of the regular season also kept winning … and winning … and … Yep, James Madison has proven itself quite nicely, losing only to an FBS opponent (North Carolina) this season while advancing to the FCS final, where the Dukes seek to add to their 2004 national title. First-year coach Mike Houston's team has been the most complete squad in the FCS, including a high-scoring offense fueled by quarterback Bryan Schor and running back Khalid Abdullah.

5. Conference Races - It's not as though Columbia or Mississippi Valley State surprised with conference titles, but the title races still had their share of twists. Only five preseason favorites wound up as champs, and only three of them - Jacksonville State (Ohio Valley), San Diego (Pioneer) and Sam Houston State (Southland) - won outright titles. The other champs: Eastern Washington and North Dakota (Big Sky), Charleston Southern and Liberty (Big South), James Madison (CAA), Penn and Princeton (Ivy), North Carolina Central (MEAC), North Dakota State and South Dakota State (Missouri Valley), Saint Francis and Duquense (Northeast), Lehigh (Patriot), The Citadel (Southern) and eventual Celebration Bowl champ Grambling State (SWAC).

4. Age is Just a Number - Some Savannah State players affectionately called South Carolina State's Joe Thomas Sr. "Pops" as they congratulated him after their Nov. 19 game, but the 55-year-old said he felt more like a hero in becoming the oldest player in the history of Division I college football. It started with a 3-yard run and finished with four carries for negative-one yard, but those numbers were secondary to Thomas' impact in the Bulldogs' 32-0 win. "I always said, 'Never give up on your dreams,'" Thomas said.

3. Passing Fancy - The three players who are invited to the Jan. 6 announcement of the STATS FCS Walter Payton Award know quite a bit about flying the friendly skies to FCS records. Sam Houston State quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe threw for 57 touchdown passes and Eastern Washington quarterback Gage Gubrud passed for 5,160 yards - both single-season marks - while Eastern Washington wide receiver Cooper Kupp finished his career with 428 receptions, 6,464 receiving yards and 73 touchdown catches - all FCS and Division I records.

2. Playoff Suspensions - That a dozen players - seven from James Madison and five from Youngstown State - were suspended before the national semifinals and for the remainder of the playoffs is a black mark on the end of a terrific FCS season. While neither school will provide a definitive reason, suspensions can occur during the postseason following NCAA drug tests.

1. Bison Run Halted - Who is in the FCS championship game isn't as big as which FCS dynasty isn't in it. North Dakota State's bid for a sixth straight national title ended against James Madison in the national semifinals. The Bison had won 22 straight playoff games and gone 2,098 days without a playoff loss before their 27-17 defeat at the Fargodome. Coach Chris Klieman's squad finished 12-2, which "dropped" the Bison to 83-7 since the start of their first championship season in 2011.

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