Jax St., NDSU, McNeese steady in final regular season Top 25

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(STATS) - The race for No. 1 took on new meaning Sunday, and there was no shortage of teams lining up to possibly take their best shot - either direct or indirect - at Jacksonville State.

A ninth straight win Saturday earned the Gamecocks (10-1) the No. 1 ranking in the STATS FCS Top 25 for the 11th straight week. But with the regular season wrapping up and then the 24-team playoff field announced Sunday, North Dakota State (9-2), which has won a record four straight FCS national championships, was right behind at No. 2 in the national media poll.

Like that pair, third-ranked McNeese State received first-place votes, and with good reason: the Cowboys were the only team in the FCS to finish the regular season unbeaten - a perfect 10-0.

The unpredictable, often parity-filled story of the regular season was reflected in its final poll. Eleven conferences had at least one team in the Top 25, led by the Big Sky and Missouri Valley with four each and CAA Football with three.

And while the Ohio Valley Conference doesn't have a strong history in the playoffs, Jacksonville State will look to reverse that trend as the No. 1 seed. The Gamecocks finished 8-0 in conference play for the second consecutive season by defeating Murray State 42-20. They received 135 of the 147 first-place votes (91.8 percent) in the Top 25.

"You look around the country, even today, huge scores coming in," coach John Grass said after Saturday's win. "Most teams have a letdown, two letdowns. This bunch has been able to play consistent."

North Dakota State routed Missouri State 55-0 to earn a share of the Missouri Valley title, its fifth straight in what has been the toughest conference in the FCS this decade. A week after not having a first-place vote, coach Chris Klieman's team secured two in Sunday's voting.

McNeese State, on the other hand, gained 10 of them after completing a perfect regular season for the second time under coach Matt Viator. The Cowboys posted a 20-14 victory at Lamar by keeping FCS rushing leader Kade Harrington in check.

While the top three teams maintained the same order for the second straight week, there was significant movement behind them. Illinois State (9-2) moved up two spots to No. 4, having gained a share of the Missouri Valley title with North Dakota State for the second year in a row. Those two teams met in the 2014 national final, with NDSU winning 29-27.

The rest of the Top 10 was Portland State (9-2); Sam Houston State (8-3); Chattanooga (8-3), the Southern Conference co-champion; James Madison (9-2), the CAA tri-champ; Big South champ Charleston Southern (9-2); and Coastal Carolina (9-2) and South Dakota State (8-3), which tied at No. 10.

Richmond (8-3) and William & Mary (8-3), which shared the CAA title with James Madison, followed at No. 12 and 13, respectively. Then it was Fordham (9-2); Northern Iowa (7-4); Montana (7-4); Big Sky champion Southern Utah (8-3); The Citadel (8-3), a Southern Conference co-champion which knocked off South Carolina 23-22 on Saturday; and Harvard (9-1) and Dartmouth (9-1), which were part of a three-way tie for the Ivy League title with unranked Penn.

The inaugural Celebration Bowl may wind up as a matchup between No. 21 Grambling State (8-2) from the Southwestern Athletic Conference and No. 22 North Carolina A&T (9-2), a tri-champion in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. Those two were followed by Eastern Washington (6-5), Eastern Illinois (7-4) and Bethune-Cookman (9-2), which shared the MEAC title with North Carolina A&T and unranked North Carolina Central.

Eastern Illinois and Bethune-Cookman entered the Top 25 for the first time this season after Eastern Kentucky and Northern Arizona fell out following defeats.

A national panel of sports information and media relations directors, broadcasters, writers and other dignitaries select the STATS FCS Top 25. In the voting, a first-place vote is worth 25 points, a second-place vote 24 points, all the way down to one point for a 25th-place vote.

The FCS playoffs begin with eight first-round games on Saturday and lead up to the national championship game on Jan. 9 in Frisco, Texas. STATS will release a final Top 25 on Jan. 11.