There will be a sense of newness Sunday in the FCS national championship game. The subdivision will crown a new national champion for the first time since the 2017 season when North Dakota State reclaimed its throne from James Madison. It will be the first time since 2010 a team not named NDSU or JMU wins the title. And the winner will hoist its first FCS championship trophy in program history.
No. 1 seed South Dakota State plays No. 2 seed Sam Houston at 1 p.m. CT in Frisco, Texas. The game airs on ABC.
The Jackrabbits are making their first championship game appearance while SHSU is 0-2 in the big game, losing in the 2011 and 2012 seasons.
Here’s what to know before kickoff.
RELATED: Championship Game Betting Odds
When SDSU has the ball
The best offensive line in the FCS squares off against the best defensive line. While SDSU is balanced offensively (230.9 rushing yards a game, 176.8 passing yards a game), it starts with the rushing attack. Pierre Strong Jr. and Isaiah Davis are both around 650 yards rushing on the season. Davis is more of the power back, and against a disruptive and physical SHSU defensive line, this game may be better suited for Strong to get more carries.
Strong’s patience and cutting ability will be needed. For how good SDSU’s o-line is, there won’t be massive holes to run through. Strong has the ability to find that small crease in the defense where what looks to be a 1-yard run turns into an 8-yard run.
SDSU has hit on explosive plays this season off of play-action, with Mark Gronowski finding one of the Janke twins down the middle of the field. Gronowski is eighth in the FCS with his 14.5 yards per completion, and he’s completing 57.5 percent of his throws. But he has missed long on some open receivers at times, and those are opportunities the Jacks need to cash in on against the Kats.
SHSU allows 277.6 passing yards a game compared to 78.9 rushing yards, although there’s no shortage of talent in the secondary with the McCollum twins.
When SHSU has the ball
SHSU should like its ability to move the ball through the air. The Jackrabbits did not face a good passing offense this spring until Southern Illinois in the quarterfinals. They allowed 316 yards passing in the 31-26 win. SHSU quarterback Eric Schmid is better than Stone Labanowitz. And while the SHSU WRs aren’t as big as the SIU pass-catchers, they are equally athletic.
SDSU’s overall team speed on defense will be put to the test. The Jacks’ defensive line manhandled Delaware’s o-line in the semifinals, which helped the secondary have a better day in coverage. The pass rush needs to get to Schmid because covering SHSU’s receivers for five seconds is near impossible. SDSU sacked Delaware quarterback Nolan Henderson seven times, but he often escaped pressure by spinning out of the pocket. Schmid is just as capable with his legs as Henderson.
The Bearkat receivers in the slot against SDSU’s linebackers is a matchup to watch. SHSU will line Jequez Ezzard up to try and create mismatches. But Ife Adeyi is another dangerous weapon out of the slot, and SHSU utilizes running back Noah Smith out of the backfield field (32 rushes, 27 catches), where he can beat a middle linebacker with an angle route to move the sticks.
I have a concern for both teams, which doesn’t make me feel great about doing a prediction for this 50/50 game.
For the Jacks, it’s their speed on defense. Not that SDSU is slow on defense. But the linebackers are built like, well, linebackers. They have good size, are physical, and do flow well to the football and fly around. But how fluid of athletes are they to slow down all of the receiving options for SHSU?
JMU plays a 5-DB base defense that allowed them to run a bit better with SHSU WRs in the semis. NDSU’s outside linebackers looked more like safeties this spring, and the Bison had the speed to defend the Bearkats in the quarterfinals.
I’m not worried about Logan Backhaus. The dude’s a 6-foot-4 LB with great range. But Preston Tetzlaff and Adam Bock will need to play their best games, not only in run support to bottle up Ramon Jefferson but in pass coverage as well. SHSU is balanced offensively, so SDSU getting out of its 4-3 base defense and playing nickel all game may not be an option.
For SHSU, it’s the lulls the Bearkats have had in games. They allowed Monmouth to hang around in the first round and the Hawks had a chance to win at the end. NDSU had zero offense but scored two TDs on special teams and had a golden opportunity to win the final minute. JMU scored 24 points in the second quarter in the semifinals to hold a 24-3 halftime lead.
You can look at that two different ways. SHSU has mental toughness, is a team of destiny, and everything is lining up for the Bearkats to win a national title. Or you can be concerned about those lulls. Because even if SHSU has 10 minutes of bad football against SDSU, who proved worthy of its No. 1 seed with a dominant semifinal win, it will be costly.
SHSU seems like a team of destiny this spring with its rebuild in style of play and gutsy playoff wins. But so does SDSU. The Jackrabbits have been building to this moment for years, slowly climbing the ladder to a national title. They played their best defensive game in years last week. The offensive line is the best in the FCS. Pierre Strong Jr. may be the most gifted running back in the subdivision. SDSU’s wide receivers have good size and speed. And freshman QB Mark Gronowski has the “it” factor to him.
The Jacks were my favorite to win the national title when the bracket was released. After what they did to Delaware, who was arguably the best team in the CAA over JMU, it’s hard to pick against SDSU now.
Prediction: SDSU 27-24
Spring Predictions Record: 53-25