Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - At the start of the 2013 FCS season,
fans, media, players and coaches alike had a pretty good idea which teams
would have the best shot at playing for a national title.
When one team comes in with back-to-back national championships under its belt
and returns most of the starters from those championship rosters, including
the quarterback, it's no secret that team has the upper bhand.
North Dakota State, from the Missouri Valley Football Conference, was the
odss-on favorite entering 2013. The Bison headed what was considered the
strongest FCS conference in the nation.
But something happens with so many dangerous teams in one conference that some
may overlook - they beat up on each other.
North Dakota State aside, teams like South Dakota State, Northern Iowa and
Youngstown State fell victim to playing in such a deep conference, that only
two of the conference's 10 programs made the postseason.
With other strong conferences across the nation like the Big Sky Conference,
the Ohio Valley Conference or the Southland Conference, it wouldn't have come
as much of a surprise to see multiple like-conference contenders in the final
This year, it's the Colonial Athletic Association with two representatives in
the semifinals vying for a shot at reaching the title game in New Hampshire
The CAA has long been considered one of the top football conferences in the
FCS, but at the start of the 2013 season wasn't widely thought of as the
conference that could potentially have two teams meet in the title game.
It was Villanova that began the season ranked in the Top 10 from the CAA,
while Towson and New Hampshire were waiting just outside that group. But with
early Villanova and New Hampshire losses, both fell far from the Top 10.
With a win over Connecticut, the Tigers established themselves as the early
giant in the CAA. Maine was right there with them, but didn't get much
attention early on. The Black Bears were picked to finish eighth in the CAA
Once conference play started, the other potential challengers went the way of
the Missouri Valley and began beating up on each other. Playoff hopes for
previously ranked teams like James Madison, Delaware, William & Mary, Richmond
and Villanova were dashed. New Hampshire, despite a losing record after four
weeks, won games it needed to in order to sneak into the postseason.
"I think it's probably the most important element of having success in the
playoffs, is what you do during the regular season and who you play," New
Hampshire coach Sean McDonnell said. "If you take a good look at it, most of
our teams played a Division I (FBS) opponent. Most of our teams have beaten a
Division I opponent over the course of time.
"The second thing is that from top to bottom, this league is the best football
league in the country. I firmly believe it. ... It goes from top to bottom
with the coaching, top to bottom with the playing."
Down the stretch is when both the Wildcats and Tigers really caught fire. When
it mattered the most. To show the depth of the CAA as it played out - neither
team won the conference or the automatic bid the the playoffs.
Towson prepares for Eastern Washington this weekend. The Eagles, the
champions of the Big Sky Conference, sport an offense capable of taking down
any team in the country. But Towson sure is used to that by now, playing in
one of the more offensively driven conferences in the nation and having beaten
teams like Fordham and Eastern Illinois already this postseason.
"When it's all said and done when we look back on it, this will be a year to
remember, I'm sure," Towson coach Rob Ambrose said. "I'd be crazy not to say
that. But while you're in the thick of it, there's nothing left to be said but
'We're not done yet.' And we're not satisfied. And we will be when it's over.
"We're focused on what we need to get done. And as long as we stay true to
that, the enormity of the moment is great discussion for people with pens and
computers. But for the warriors, it's all about the war."
The CAA is the most well-represented in the final four with two teams. But
remember that squad that won back-to-back national titles and went undefeated
this regular season? Yeah, the Bison are still around, too.
New Hampshire travels to Fargo to take on a North Dakota State team defined by
balance - strength on both sides of the ball. For a shot at the national
championship game, the Wildcats must travel through Fargo.
McDonnell is in his 15th season at the helm of the UNH program, and is an alum
of Wildcats football. The trip to Fargo is special because it's the first
semifinal berth for the program in its history.
"We've been banging on the door for a long time to get through it," McDonnell
said. "But the great thing about it is the pride the alums, our former players
and the people are taking in the state of New Hampshire. ... It just gives you
a great sense of satisfaction that people still care about what we're doing
here and how we're doing it. And we're doing it in a way I think they all can
relate by playing the way we are."
This weekend, both New Hampshire and Towson will be looking to prove
McDonnell's sentiment that the CAA is the best league, with potentially the
best teams, in the country.
The following is a game-by-game breakdown for the FCS playoff semifinal
round (all times ET):
Friday, Dec. 20
New Hampshire (10-4) at No. 1 North Dakota State (13-0)
Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
What to know: After last weekend's thrashing of Coastal Carolina, it would
appear North Dakota State is well on its way back to the national championship
game in Frisco, Texas. But surging New Hampshire may have a few statements to
make against the Bison in Fargo on Friday night.
It's the first-ever meeting between New Hampshire and North Dakota State, and,
judging by the way the Bison are playing this postseason, it's a bad time for
any opponent to come to Fargo to challenge the back-to-back national
In two postseason games at the Fargodome in 2013, North Dakota State has
outscored its opponents 86-21, which includes the most recent pounding over
the Chanticleers, who entered last weekend's playoff matchup as the third-best
scoring offense in the FCS at 42.9 points per game.
Coastal Carolina tailback Lorenzo Taliaferro, the nation's third-leading
rusher in terms of yards (1,729), was held to just 53 on 11 carries, including
a second-quarter touchdown. The explosive Chants offense only mustered 281
yards against a stifling defense in front of the raucous home Bison crowd. Oh,
and North Dakota State has won 22 consecutive games dating back to Oct. 13,
2012. There's that to contend with.
Fortunately for New Hampshire, the Wildcats haven't exactly minded taking on
higher-ranked opponents, not only in the playoffs but in the regular season as
New Hampshire is 5-2 this season against nationally ranked teams, and has won
each of its five previous matchups with those ranked squads. That includes two
wins over Maine (the fifth seed in the FCS playoffs) and Southeastern
Louisiana last weekend (the fourth seed).
Wildcats quarterback Sean Goldrich carried the team in its win over the Lions
in Hammond, La., last weekend. His three rushing touchdowns, including one
with 47 seconds to play in the contest that gave the Wildcats the win, doubled
his previous season total of rushing scores. Goldrich has thrown and rushed for
a combined eight touchdowns in three postseason games.
It's the first time in program history the Wildcats have won multiple playoff
games in a season, the first time they've defeated a conference opponent in
the postseason, and the team's first trip to a national semifinal game. Since
it's the first time these two teams have met - and "firsts" haven't been an
issue for New Hampshire this season - wouldn't it seem fitting for the Wildcats
to hand the Bison their first loss in over a year?
But it's not just North Dakota State's defense the Wildcats need to be
concerned with. The Bison put up 623 yards on offense against Coastal in the
quarterfinals, which is the most for the team since 2007. That included seven
players combining for 424 rushing yards - the most in 17 years.
Quarterback Brock Jensen is as efficient as they come, and has already gone
down as the winningest signal caller in FCS history. When it's all said and
done, he could very well be the first quarterback to start for three straight
national championship teams.
Prediction: North Dakota State 31, New Hampshire 21
Saturday, Dec. 21
No. 7 Towson (12-2) at No. 3 Eastern Washington (12-2)
Kickoff: 2 p.m. ET (ESPNU)
What to know: Saturday's matchup with Eastern Washington will mark the third
straight playoff game for Towson in which the Tigers have faced a team
averaging more than 37 points per game.
Unfortunately for the Tigers, that's the way the bracket came together and the
scenarios played out.
Fortunately for Towson, that hasn't stopped the Tigers from simply outplaying
Towson scored 48 points to bury Fordham in the FCS second round, then 49 to
take down No. 2 seed Eastern Illinois and Walter Payton Award winner Jimmy
Garoppolo. The Tigers, led by standout running back Terrance West, will have
another potent offense and a star quarterback to contend with this weekend.
Eastern Washington survived a tight first half with Jacksonville State last
weekend to win, 35-24, and advance to host the semifinals for a second
consecutive year. Led by sophomore quarterback Vernon Adams and highlighted by
standout receivers Cooper Kupp (the Jerry Rice Award-winning freshman of the
year), Ashton Clark and Shaquille Hill, along with running back Quincy Forte,
this Eagles team is averaging 40.1 points per game.
And that total will be needed to keep pace with West and the Tigers. In fact,
West was nearly a one-man offense (OK, he had some great help from his
offensive linemen) in the win over Eastern Illinois. West rushed for a
playoff-record 354 yards and five touchdowns, while the Tigers gained 472
yards on the ground - good for the fourth-best single-game total by any FCS
team this season. Towson scored seven times rushing against the Panthers.
West's likely eventual successor, freshman Darius Victor, carried the ball 11
times for 80 yards and a touchdown Friday night. So it isn't just West for
whom the Eagles to game plan.
And for the Tigers to "limit" Garoppolo to 321 passing yards and two
touchdowns (he also had two rushing scores) shows that this defense is up to
the challenge of at least slowing down the star opposing signal caller.
Against Jacksonville State, the Eagles' defense struggled early to shut down
redshirt freshman quarterback Eli Jenkins. The Gamecocks' dual-threat passer
already had over 100 passing yards and 100 rushing yards before he left the
game just before halftime with a knee injury.
But when it came time for the defense to step up, it was freshman linebacker
Albert Havili who jumped in front of a Max Shortell slant pass, intercepting
it and returning it 77 yards for the game-clinching score.
Eastern Washington's offense is scary good, but Towson's is playing just as
well. There's no doubt this game will come down to defense and which team can
come up with clutch turnovers or key stops in crunch time. Eastern
Washington's inability to slow Jacksonville State down in the first half last
weekend will likely have West itching to get out on the Inferno and start
Who knows what would've happened had Jenkins not suffered a knee injury last
weekend, but the Eagles can't bank on injuries to get through to Frisco.
Prediction: Towson 42, Eastern Washington 37
The Sports Network