James Madison, the No. 1 seed this year, will look to secure its second straight FCS title, while No. 2 seed North Dakota State hopes to add its sixth championship in seven years.
So who will come out on top? Here's what HERO Sports staffers have to say:
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 closer we get to game time, the more I lean toward NDSU. The reasons are plenty. Mostly because I think NDSU is a much better football team this year than they were last December and I think the Dukes are right about the same with a better defense and less explosive offense (although the fourth quarter against Weber State and the second half against SDSU may suggest that's changing).
It's also key to point out that the entire front 7 of NDSU's defense that will start Saturday did not play in the second half last season in the semifinals. That's huge, considering the Dukes had a few key explosive plays in the fourth quarter to put a halt to NDSU's comeback. I don't know if those plays will be there this year.
BUT, with all that said, and even though I lean closer to NDSU every day when I think about the game, it's still not enough for me to stray away from my national title pick all season. I think JMU wins 17-14 in not-so-pretty fashion. It'll be a classic slugfest that casual fans watching on TV may not be entertained with. In the end, JMU has the recipe to stop the Bison's offense – locking down the outside 1-on-1 and controlling the run game. And I think the JMU offense can do just enough to outscore NDSU.
The matchup we've all been waiting for is finally here. Before the playoffs I picked NDSU to knock off the reining champions, and as good as JMU has looked in the playoffs, it's hard to stray from an NDSU team that has seemingly gotten stronger as the post-season has progressed. Yes, NDSU had an easier road. Yes, NDSU has some major injories that could play a huge role. And yes, NDSU can win this game.
I expect this to be exactly what we hoped it would be — a slugfest, smashmouth football in every sense of the word. These are the two best teams — by far — in the country, and I don't expect either to go down without a fight. I believe North Dakota State's defense — anchored by Nick DeLuca and Nate Tanguay, will be the difference in this one. Both teams will struggle to score, but NDSU holds the slight edge in my mind.