Tomorrow, we will be crowning the first ever FCS champion. The title contenders are two teams that have played well from start to finish, and they both will lay it all on the line tomorrow night to become the first champion in site history. The away team, from Harrisonburg, Virginia, is the James Madison Dukes (11-3), a 3 seed who has the only upset of the tournament when they beat 2 seed North Dakota last week. The home team, from Fargo, North Dakota, is the North Dakota State Bison (12-2), the #1 overall seed whose only losses were to FBS Texas Tech and criminally underrated Illinois State. Both teams had a long road to get here, but now one game stands between them and eternal glory, because nobody ever remembers 2nd place. I was also able to get a few quotes from both coaches that will be included in this write-up as well. Without further ado, let’s take a closer look at our teams.
James Madison Dukes (11-3)
The Dukes were not supposed to be here. They were projected by most to finish near the middle of the pack. Maybe they’d win a Round 1 game, but nothing more than that. Coach Suffocation came in and he made the team instantly better with his great game planning that played off their strengths and hid their weaknesses. “Everything about the team has been impressive but I think our ability to simply execute the gameplan has been the most impressive” Suffocation said. But it didn’t happen right away. A strong opening week win over New Hampshire was quickly overshadowed by their big loss to the North Dakota Fighting Sioux. Robbie Koehler went off that week, and it seemed like James Madison were who we thought they were. After a week off, they handled Harvard, then they had another week off before the schedule Gods cursed them with three road games against three highly rated teams: Illinois State, Virginia Tech, and North Dakota State. They were able to knock off the Redbirds in a game that wasn’t as close as it seemed. The following week, they lost by 7 to the Virginia Tech Hokies, a very respectable result for a lower tiered football team. And in part 3 of their Hell Month, they lost a close game to North Dakota State in the FargoDome. Halfway through the season, the Dukes were right where everyone said they would be: 3-3 and in the middle of the pack. But, something happened to JMU in their 3rd bye week. They came out and suffocated (get it because it’s the coaches name?) Youngstown State before heading into another bye week. Then they went on a 5-week tear that helped them secure the 3 seed in the FCS Playoffs. Their first win might have been their most impressive. They went into Eastern Washington, played on the God-forsaken red turf, and held future Player of the Year Samuel Connor to 24 points in a 31-24 victory. They would win their last five games of the year, outscoring opponents 140-101. They weren’t blowing teams out necessarily, but they were consistently making teams play into their strengths. In the playoffs, they continued their winning streak by holding Raekwon Thomas and Northern Iowa to 7 points in the Quarterfinal and getting revenge in the Semifinal by blowing out the Fighting Sioux 42-21.
And now, they have a chance to cap off an incredible run by beating the consistently best team in the FCS. They’ll need great performances from everybody, but the two players who will carry this team to victory are Cooper Fleming and Willie Peters. This 1-2 offensive punch have been very good for the Dukes all year. In 11 games Fleming has 2684 yards and 24 touchdowns on just 7 interceptions thrown, and Peters has 945 yards and 14 touchdowns in 12 games played. In the playoffs Peters had a slow quarterfinal game but he bounced back in the semis with 89 yards and 2 touchdowns. Fleming also showed out in the semis, going 20/35 for 245 yards and 2 touchdowns. While most people are at least sort of familiar with Fleming, being that he is the starting QB, Peters has been operating under the radar. Coach SolutionA said that “We're going to need to do a good job stopping Willie Peters. The guy runs like he's running downhill.” So, while Peters has been a secret weapon of sorts for JMU, he has North Dakota State’s full attention. A good game by Peters will almost certainly mean a championship for the Dukes.
And what would a championship mean for James Madison? Well, here’s what Suffocation had to say: “A championship is the goal for every season and it would mean absolutely everything to myself, the team and the fans. We’ve played ‘underdog’ for most of the season and I don’t expect that to change now, North Dakota State are a top side and regardless of what happens, I am immensely proud of what this team has achieved.”
North Dakota State Bison (12-2)
Unlike the Dukes, the Bison (pronounced BiZon and if you say it wrong you will literally DIE) are supposed to be here. They have one of the most talented teams in the FCS, a team so good they could probably compete with some of the G5 teams in the FBS. On both sides of the ball, and even on special teams, there’s immense talent. Their offense is stupidly efficient, their defense is the nastiest in the league, and their special teams are just that: special. It’s no surprise that they’re here in the title game, but their work is far from over. Their season started with a bang as they won a shootout over the Eastern Washington Eagles in week 0. Then they were blessed with a double bye, and they came out of it by destroying Northern Iowa. They won a hard-fought game against Youngstown State the following week, and to top it off they beat Montana by 32 before their next bye week. After their third bye of the year, they won a nail biter over James Madison before finally losing to…Texas Tech, a solid FBS school who had a Heisman candidate at running back. And even though they lost, it was only by 4 points. This BiZon team proved that up to this point they were virtually unstoppable in FCS play. They made light work of South Dakota State, Delaware, and Harvard before their 4th bye week of the year. They came out and stomped New Hampshire, and then they had to play Illinois State. Now, Illinois State had just gotten steamrolled by Samuel Connor the week before and have struggled against the top of the FCS. They had beaten North Dakota, who finished 2nd, but they had losses to James Madison and Northern Iowa, along with the loss to EWU. Surely the unstoppable force of the BiZon would be able to beat a streaky team from Normal, Illinois? Surely not, as it turned out, as the Redbirds handed the BiZon their only FCS loss to date, 31-21. They would have to beat their rivals in Grand Forks to clinch the #1 seed, and they did. The BiZon train continued to roll in the playoffs as they beat Harvard handily in the Quarterfinals and they made Samuel Connor seem like a normal human Quarterback in their Semifinal victory.
Despite being the best team all year, James Madison is going to put up quite a fight. Both teams are fairly well-coached, and this game will come down to the play of one player: Quarterback Zack McAllister. As mentioned above, NDSU’s offense is stupidly efficient, and that has a lot to do with McAllister. He has 24 touchdowns against just 4 interceptions. In the playoffs he has 4 touchdowns and 0 interceptions, leading his team to the championship game as a Sophomore. That’s right, FCS teams. We’ll probably see two more years of McAllister being ridiculously accurate, and he’s only going to get better. NDSU coach SolutionA credited McAllister to the team’s successful year, stating “I am very impressed with play from Zack McAllister. He's just a sophomore yet he's managed to lead the team like a senior. He makes smart decisions, manages an insane TD to INT ratio, and even runs the ball a few times for scores!” And Coach Suffocation is very aware of what McAllister means to this team. “Zack McAllister is the biggest threat [on their team]. He manages the game well, doesn’t make many mistakes and brings a great balance to an already dangerous offense which makes it very hard to play against.” If the Dukes want to upset the BiZon, they’ll need a defensive gameplan that somehow takes the game out of McAllister’s hands. But if McAllister can continue to play at his current level, you can start planning the parade in Fargo.
I asked the same question to SolutionA: what would a championship mean to this team? And here’s what he had to say: “A championship victory would be amazing. We're here to play and win, so we expect as much. Every preseason we take a weekend cabin trip to get our head screwed on right before the season. We make sure we're all on the same page.” Maybe next year’s cabin will have a championship banner hanging in the rafters.
Before I sign off I would like to thank Suffocation and SolutionA for answering my questions and congratulate them for a successful season. I would also like to shoutout the rest of the FCS for an amazing first season. And thank you to all the upper admins and conference commissioners for the work they put into this sim for all of us to enjoy. Your hard work does not go unappreciated. Here’s to a successful 10 seasons and here’s to a thousand more.
All scores and game results came from the weekly scoring tracker.
All other stats come from the consolidated statsheet.