I've changed my mind so many times when it comes to the FCS national title pick that this feels more like a 'coinflip' pick than a real pick.
In August? I would have gone with James Madison. In October when JMU wasn't exactly putting teams away? North Dakota State. Then back to James Madison in November, then back to NDSU after JMU squeaked through the quarterfinal win. Then back to JMU after it throttled South Dakota State in the semis — the same SDSU team that handed NDSU it's only loss this year. Oh, and there's that NDSU 'revenge factor' thing to consider, too.
LISTEN: Brian McLaughlin talks FCS National Title Game on 'The Brakedown'[divider]
Before the playoffs, James Madison looked vulnerable in the run game, offensively. It looked like a team that could be shut down, putting the pressure solely on QB Bryan Schor's shoulders. That has changed with the emergence of Marcus Marshall in the postseason, and WR Riley Stapleton has exploded to become 'Mr. Clutch' for the Dukes. On the flip side, NDSU has outscored its playoff opponents 135-36, with Bruce Anderson blowing up in the run game.
I'm just not seeing weaknesses here, folks, even with the bevy of injuries these two teams have dealt with. You could maybe point at NDSU's passing attack (88th in the country in yardage) against a JMU secondary (No. 1 in country in pass efficiency) that has 29 interceptions spread among its four starters, but NDSU QB Easton Stick has thrown 10 touchdowns in three postseason games and is incredibly efficient (No. 2 in nation) when the Bison do choose to pass.
They've both scored 500 points, they've both only given up in the 150-ish range in 14 games. They have the No. 1 and No. 2 overall defenses in the FCS. They're both stellar in the turnover margin department. They do all the right things, like 'defense first', strong special teams, they both run the ball well and execute in the redzone. They both have players who've been on this stage before.
That's right, they're mirror images of each other, and that's why a pick is so tough — because along with being mirror images of each other, they're going to probably split Toyota Stadium in half, attendance-wise, so there will be no clear cut noise advantage for either team.
Honestly, this is what a national championship game should look like — a complete tossup. All signs point to exactly that. So my real prediction in this one? Both teams get into the 20-point range, but don't surpass 30. Both teams will make critical plays on special teams and defense, and this game will come down to the fourth quarter. And don't rule out an overtime game.
The winner (since that's the rule, we have to pick one because there's no such thing as a tie anymore and ties are un-American anyway): We'll go with James Madison because I'm writing this on a Monday and Monday and Madison both start with 'M'. On Friday? Fargo and Friday both start with the same letter, so you see how it goes.
I feel more certain about what the score will be (than the winner), so let's go with 24-21 as the score. James Madison 24-21 (written Monday). Check back later in the week to see if we've had a change of mind — again.
SIGNING DAY: Early Signing Period For FCS Title Teams