The FCS national championship collision course between No. 1 North Dakota State and No. 2 James Madison is happening Jan. 11. It's what we expected to see all season, and the anticipation (and tension) grows with each nearing day.
As they have done all season long, Brian McLaughlin and Sam Herder are here to hate your favorite team and predict some scores. In this case, it'll be the final score prediction of the 2019 season and the final prediction in their FCS pick 'em challenge, one in which Sam has sealed a victory.
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I'm not deviating from my pre-tournament pick. I'm not deviating from my Week 0 pick when I first voted on the poll back in August. And I'm not deviating from the way I voted waaaaaaaay back in June for the HERO Sports preseason poll.
These two teams are FCS Titans … they are extremely comparable on the field this year (I would not have predicted that). It's going to be a stalemate in so, so, so many ways. So what is the tiebreaker?
Experience. My partner in crime Sam Herder did a great piece this week about "who is still around" from these two teams' national title matchup two years ago. Turns out there are six JMU starters still around and five NDSU starters. We've seen both of these sides have borderline hiccups this year, but we haven't seen either ultimately succumb to an FCS team. And truly? JMU should be kicking itself after dominating West Virginia in Week 1, only to let turnovers and special teams mistakes take away what was a P5 win if you believe in statistics.
What made me wonder about NDSU in the preseason was the Bison losing 548 combined starts from the 2018 lineup of a 15-0 team that I'm certain could have beaten two-thirds of the Power Fives last year. I am CERTAIN of that two-thirds "point" there.
On the flip side? JMU came into 2019 with 20 guys who had been full-time starters at some point (prior to injury, etc) and this year reflects it. And 15 players on the team were contributors at Toyota Stadium two years ago. JMU was dominated, the 17-13 final score hardly reflected how those first three quarters really went. I remember so well standing in the hallway postgame with Riley Stapleton and Rashad Robinson, talking about the future. They were two underclassmen we knew would be back. Well? This is the next go-around. This is their chance to erase the memories of two years ago.
This is going to be an awesome game, folks. The bowl game peeps should take notes. The stadium will be packed. The two teams are better than at least half, if not more of the FBS bowl teams that played this cycle … it'll be fun.
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My gut is telling me JMU is going to win this game. It's been telling me that ever since last January when I put the Dukes No. 1 on my way-too-early 2019 national title favorites and NDSU No. 2.
BUT … my head is telling me not to pick against the Bison like I did two years ago when these teams met in Frisco. That was the last time I predicted NDSU to lose a game. They also proved me wrong the time before that when I picked them to lose to Iowa in 2016. The time before that … well, I actually got that one correct in 2014 at Northern Iowa. My point is I rarely pick against NDSU. And the Bison's record in the 2010s kinda suggests you shouldn't do it a ton. When I have picked against them, I've been proven wrong just about every time.
Now, it'd be easy to pick JMU to win this game. A lot of people are. And I completely understand why. The 2019 squad has perfected the blueprint on how to beat NDSU — a strong, physical defense that prides itself on controlling the line of scrimmage. And a balanced offense featuring a good rushing attack, mismatches at wide receiver and a dual-threat quarterback in an offense that spreads a defense out.
This will easily be the best opponent the Bison have faced all season, and probably in the last couple of seasons.
I really don't see one advantage on either side that tips the scales here. I don't think anyone is going to "win" the battle between NDSU's OL and JMU's DL, because I don't think the Bison are going to run for 250 yards. I also don't think they'll run for 75 yards. The same can be said for JMU's running game. I don't see Trey Lance or Ben DiNucci carving up either secondary. Both teams range from above-average to good on special teams. Both teams take care of the ball with the Dukes figuring out some fumbling issues midseason and NDSU being allergic to throwing interceptions.
And I don't really buy the "experience" factor either.
Guys like QB Trey Lance, WR Christian Watson and safety Michael Tutsie are playing like upperclassmen and frankly, are playing just as good as the seniors from last year that they've replaced. And while JMU may have the more veteran lineup with more combined career starts, I'd actually say the number of key players on each roster that have played significant minutes in a national title game leans more toward NDSU. I don't think the "big stage" will get to either team. And I don't think we'll see any "youthful" mistakes on NDSU's end.
This is about as 50/50 of a game as you can get. I slightly favor NDSU here because this Bison squad has the same makeup of all the past championship teams despite the new names in the starting lineup and on the coaching staff. And that's finding a way to win close ball games. As cliche as that is, it's true. There have been several games during the Bison's decade of dominance where they had every reason to lose but found a way to win.
In this game, I think JMU is going to be able to move the ball between the 30s, but will struggle to finish drives. That has been a problem at times for the Dukes this season. On the flip side, I don't see NDSU having its best day offensively due to the challenges JMU presents. But I think the Bison hit 1-2 big plays and that's going to be the difference, just like two years ago.
This showdown is so much of a tossup where even trying to predict the outcome doesn't seem worth it. No one truly knows what the hell is going to happen on that field and we're all just guessing, right? As I said above, there isn't one matchup advantage that sways me, so I'll go with the program that's gone 7-0 in Frisco in the last eight years. The Bison find a way once again in another epic showdown.
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