An FCS spring football season unlike any other will have a national championship game unlike any in recent memory.
When South Dakota State and Sam Houston square off at noon MT Sunday at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, it’ll be the first title game since the 2010 season to not feature either North Dakota State or James Madison. NDSU has won eight of the past nine titles, while JMU won it the one year NDSU failed to finish on top.
Whoever wins will be a first-time FCS national champion. The last time the champ was a first-time winner was NDSU in 2011.
SDSU, out of the Missouri Valley Football Conference, has never played in a national title game since jumping up to the FCS in 2004. Sam Houston, from the Southland Conference, is 0-2 in the championship game since moving up to the FCS in 1986 but had won the 1964 NAIA title.
The Southland last had a team in the title game in 2011 and 2012, when Sam Houston made back-to-back trips. The league is 1-7 in the chipper, with the lone win coming in 1987 by Northeast Louisiana, which is now known as Louisiana-Monroe and plays in the FBS. The MVFC has won eight of the past nine national crowns and is 10-4 in the title game.
SDSU and Sam Houston have never faced each other. This will be Sam Houston’s final game as a member of the Southland before it moves to the relaunched WAC this summer.
This is the 43rd title game for the I-AA/FCS. It’s expected to be played in front of only 7,500 fans at the 20,000-seat stadium because of the pandemic.
SDSU (8-1) is the No. 1 seed in the playoffs for the first time in program history. The Jackrabbits rolled through Holy Cross in the first round, 31-3, squeaked past Southern Illinois in the quarterfinals, 31-26, and blew the doors off Delaware in the semifinals, 33-3.
Sam Houston (9-0) is the No. 2 seed after going 6-0 in the regular season. The Bearkats opened the playoffs with a 21-15 win over Monmouth, held on for a 24-20 victory against NDSU in the quarterfinals and rallied for a 38-35 win over JMU in the semifinals.
South Dakota State had four players on the various All-American teams: RB Pierre Strong Jr., LB Logan Backhaus, DB Don Gardner and OL Garret Greenfield. Quarterback Mark Gronowski placed second in voting for the Jerry Rice Award, given to the top FCS freshman, and was named the MVFC offensive player of the year.
Sam Houston had six players on the various All-American teams: DL Jahari Kay, QB Eric Schmid, OL Colby Thomas, WR/PR/AP Jequez Ezzard, DL Jevon Leon and DB Zyon McCollum. Kay was a Buck Buchanan Award finalist. Schmid was the Southland player of the year.
John Stiegelmeier: The Jackrabbits coach is 174-106 in 24 seasons, all of which have been at SDSU, his alma mater, and 132-73 since moving to the FCS level. He’s led SDSU to the FCS playoffs 10 times, including each of the past nine seasons, and has gone 11-9 in those games.
K.C. Keeler: The Bearkats coach is 242-95-1 in 27 seasons overall and 68-22 in seven years at Sam Houston. He coached Delaware to the 2003 FCS title and is tied for the most playoff wins (23) with former Youngstown State coach Jim Tressel. He could be the first coach to win an FCS title at two schools.
SDSU scoring offense vs. SHSU scoring defense: 30.1 ppg vs. 19.4 ppg allowed
SHSU scoring offense vs. SDSU scoring defense: 39.1 ppg vs. 14.1 ppg allowed
SDSU passing offense vs. SHSU passing defense: 176.8 ypg vs. 277.6 ypg allowed
SHSU passing offense vs. SDSU passing defense: 289.6 ypg vs. 168.1 ypg allowed
SDSU rushing offense vs. SHSU rushing defense: 230.9 ypg vs. 78.9 ypg allowed
SHSU rushing offense vs. SDSU rushing defense: 160.4 ypg vs. 112.6 ypg allowed
Sam Houston defensive lineman Jahari Kay on the legitimacy of the spring season: “I don’t think putting North Dakota State and James Madison in the same bracket as us is an asterisk at all. So putting an asterisk by this championship is hilarious, and also ridiculous to even say such a thing.”