January 04, 2017

(STATS) - And winner of the best FCS conference in the nation is …

Saturday's national championship game between Youngstown State from the Missouri Valley Football Conference and CAA Football champion James Madison may provide the answer for the 2016 season.

Every national championship game since 2002 has had a team from one of the two conferences, but they've squared off only one previous time, when North Dakota State beat Towson three years ago.

While NDSU has provided the Missouri Valley with five straight titles, the CAA was the national bully on the block before the run. Four different CAA programs have won titles since 2003, and James Madison, the '04 champion, gives the conference a ninth finalist in the 14-year period.

"I will say this," JMU first-year coach Mike Houston said, "you have two teams from the hands-down two-best conferences in the nation, so (the matchup) does not surprise me. We fully expected to have an opportunity to do this and I'm sure Youngstown State did as well."

The two power conferences, Youngstown State second-year coach Bo Pelini added, "play solid football where you've got to be prepared to play each and every week. I think when that happens, and you go through that type of schedule, you get better as the year goes on. I think you've seen that happen with both these football teams."

The two conferences didn't meet in the regular season. They both had four teams qualify for the playoffs, going 7-3 to date and splitting two games: South Dakota State edged Villanova in the second round and James Madison ended North Dakota State's 22-game postseason win streak in the semifinals.

Out of conference, the 12-team CAA is 26-18, including two wins over FBS programs, while the 10-team Missouri Valley is 25-13, with four wins over FBS programs. Valley teams have combined for 62 weeks appearing in the STATS FCS Top 25 compared to CAA's 61 weeks.

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NCAA Division I FCS Championship Game=

The Matchup - Youngstown State (12-3) vs. No. 4 seed James Madison (13-1)

Kickoff - Noon ET Saturday at Toyota Stadium (15,300) in Frisco, Texas

Coverage - ESPN2

Series - Youngstown State leads 3-1 (most recent meeting: YSU won 35-31 in the FCS playoff first round on Nov. 25, 2006 in Youngstown, Ohio)

FCS Championship Game History - Youngstown State: National titles in 1991, '93, '94 and '97, runner-up finishes in 1992 and '99; James Madison: National title in 2004

Coaches - Youngstown State: Bo Pelini (17-9, two seasons; 84-36 overall); James Madison: Mike Houston (13-1, first season; 56-20 overall)

Players to Watch - Youngstown State: QB Hunter Wells (107 of 169, 1,443 yards, 9 TDs, 4 INTs), RB/KR Jody Webb (212 carries, 1,301 yards, 6 TDs; 27 receptions, 353 yards), RB Tevin McCaster (127 carries, 629 yards, 11 TDs), DE Derek Rivers (52 TT, 17.5 TFL, 14 sacks), DE Avery Moss (51 TT, 14.5 TFL, 10 sacks), LB Armand Dellovade (98 TT, 11.5 TFL), PK Zak Kennedy (19 of 29 FG, 37 of 38 PAT); James Madison: QB Bryan Schor (210 of 285, 2,890 yards, 27 TDs, 6 INTs; 543 rushing yards, 10 TDs), RB Khalid Abdullah (272 carries, 1,708 yards, 20 TDs); WR/KR Brandon Ravenel (45 receptions, 720 yards, 5 TDs), DE Andrew Ankrah (42 TT, 5 TFL, 2.5 sacks), LB Gage Steele (98 TT, 3 sacks, 4 PBU), S Raven Greene (66 TT, 6 INTs, 7 PBUs), PR Rashard Davis (29.9-yard average, 4 TDs)

What to Know - James Madison, the CAA Football champ, is the favorite, but Youngstown State has been on a roll coming out of the MVFC, beating the No. 2 (Eastern Washington) and No. 3 (Jacksonville State) playoff seeds on the road. Both teams lost players to suspensions for the remainder of the FCS playoffs prior to the semifinals - James Madison had seven and Youngstown State five. YSU's suspensions included its second-leading rusher Martin Ruiz; wide receiver Darien Townsend, who leads the team in receiving yards; and safeties Jameel Smith and LeRoy Alexander, their No. 2 and 3 tacklers, respectively. JMU's losses included linebacker Brandon Hereford, the team's No. 1 tackler prior to the semifinal-round win at North Dakota State, and No. 2 wide receiver Terrence Alls, while coach Mike Houston refused last week to comment on All-America right tackle Mitchell Kirsch's status (listed as the backup on the team's current depth chart). Both offenses use the run to set up the pass. JMU has the more prolific unit, averaging 525.6 yards (No. 3 in the FCS), including 284.6 rushing, and 48 points per game (No. 2 in the FCS). YSU averages 431.6 yards, including 257.5 rushing, while scoring 28.5 points per game. With the combination of Webb and McCaster running the ball, the Penguins will look to control the game clock. Their average time of possession is 34 minutes, 2 seconds, which is third-best in the FCS. Abdullah (62 yards shy of the school's single-season rushing record) was electric in James Madison's win over NDSU, gaining 231 yards from scrimmage, and Schor is an efficient, composed leader who is mobile enough to avoid YSU's strong pass rush. The junior's 73.7 completion percentage leads the nation. One of the key battles will be on third down because the Dukes convert 51.4 percent of the time, but YSU had held opponents to a 34 percent rate. Youngstown State is surrendering 324.4 yards and 19.4 points, and JMU is allowing 348 yards and 21.7 points per game. The Penguins have a school-record 47 sacks and Rivers is their all-time sacks leader (40). JMU's Steele has been playing better than ever in his standout career and the secondary that features Greene and cornerback Taylor Reynolds is athletic enough to trouble Wells, the YSU signal caller. YSU had an edge in the kicking game (Kennedy and punter Mark Schuler), but JMU's return game (seven returns for touchdowns) changes games. As for X-factors? The Penguins have been excellent with finishing games, coming from behind in the fourth quarter for five wins. Their point total after the third quarter is more than double their opponent (154-76). JMU has only lost four fumbles and just 13 turnovers in 14 games. Meanwhile, the Dukes have gained 28 takeaways for a plus-15 turnover margin.

Prediction - Youngstown State defied so much by winning on the road at Eastern Washington, but the Penguins' shorthanded team will find it harder to keep up with James Madison's more-balanced offense. James Madison 27-17.

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