Frisco, Texas will be the center of the college football world on Jan. 7 when Youngstown State and James Madison square off in the Division I FCS National Championship Game. For the first time in six years, North Dakota State will not contend for the title. Instead, it will be the team that knocked them off, JMU, against a resurgent Youngstown State squad.
James Madison enters the title game on an 11-game win streak, with two contests on their schedule sticking out. The first is the Dukes’ lone loss, a game at FBS North Carolina in September. The second is the Dec. 16 playoff semifinal versus North Dakota State, a huge upset win for JMU. The Bison won an unprecedented five-straight titles from 2011-2015. After their big upset win, the Dukes will try to win their first championship since 2004.
Youngstown State returns to the playoffs for the first time since losing in the semifinals in 2006. The Penguins were a powerhouse in the 1990s, winning four championships under former coach and current university president Jim Tressel. YSU enters with a six-game win streak of its own, including a narrow victory oover perennial contender Eastern Washington in the semifinals.
This game features a battle between an elite offense from James Madison and a stout defense from Youngstown State. James Madison is scoring 49.5 points per game in FCS competition this year, including two 80-point games. The rushing attack is where the Dukes see the most success. JMU averages 284.6 yards per game on the ground this season. Senior tailback Khalid Abdullah is the team’s leading rusher, with 1,708 yards and 20 touchdowns on the year.
While not as dominant as their run game, James Madison is one of the most efficient teams in the country through the air. Junior quarterback Bryan Schor has a passer efficiency rating of 185.9 on the season, completing nearly 74 percent of his passes for 2,890 yards and 27 touchdowns. Third-down conversions are a strong point for this team, with it converting on over 51 percent of third-down attempts.
Defensively, Youngstown State dominated many opponents throughout the season, only allowing more than 24 points once against FCS competition (Eastern Washington). Overall, the Penguins are allowing just 18.6 points per game to intradivisional competition. YSU’s run defense matches up reasonably well with James Madison, as it allows just 128 rushing yards per game.
The Penguins find their most offensive success on the ground, using multiple backs effectively. Senior Jody Webb leads the team with 1,301 yards, while senior Martin Ruiz and sophomore Tevin McCaster lead the team in touchdowns with 12 and 11, respectively. YSU quarterbacks have done a good job avoiding turnovers this season, with Hunter Wells and Ricky Davis throwing just nine interceptions combined this year.
Coach Mike Houston has impressed the nation in his first year with James Madison. Coming to JMU after a successful 2015 with The Citadel, Houston turned a perennial competitor into a bona fide contender. On the other side, Bo Pelini has thrived since arriving in Youngstown after departing from Nebraska. Pelini led the Penguins to a mediocre 2015, but found the team’s niche this season en route to their 12-3 record.
This match-up can serve as a showcase for the entire FCS. The division’s identity has been tied to North Dakota State since the beginning of its championship run. Now, with the Bison out of the picture, these two teams can show off the division’s entertaining brand of football. The rising program with a high-powered offense facing off against a strong defense looking for a redemption is as archetypal and intriguing as you can get for a national title game. Youngstown State and James Madison will kick off from Frisco at noon ET on Saturday.