By Sam Partridge
The CAA Today Columnist
College Sporting News
Given that history, it's not a surprise to see teams having consistent success in the postseason, but this year has set a new standard, at least in one respect. For the first time in the history of the playoffs, three of the four semifinalists from 2011 (North Dakota State, Sam Houston State, Georgia Southern) have returned in 2012. Incredibly, they are joined by the national champion from 2010 in Eastern Washington. This makes for all kinds of intriguing possibilities for the title game in Frisco as well as some interesting additions to the rich history of the FCS postseason. Let's start with the defending champions.
North Dakota State
It's not unusual for the defending champions to return to the semifinals as this is the 12th time it's happened with nine of the teams finding their way back to the title game. Most interesting is that the defending champs have only lost three times in their nine appearances in the finals defending their title. What's fascinating is that those three losses all came in rematches. Something to remember if the Bison and Bearkats find themselves in Frisco again.
Trying to become the first team to win championships while missing the playoffs in-between titles. The only other team to win two titles in three years was Youngstown State, which won in 1991 and 1993 while losing in the title game in 1992. This will forever be known as the "Grover Cleveland".
If the Eagles manage to win the title again, it will be without having to win a game on the road, something they also accomplished in 2010, as did North Dakota State last year. In fact, the last team to win a road game on the way to the title was Villanova, with a semifinal win at William & Mary in 2009.
However, Villanova was also the last defending champion to lose the next year in the semifinals. And, who did they lose to? Eastern Washington. As I said, lots of history this year.
The winningest program in FCS playoff history, the Eagles are looking for their 7th title and a win this weekend would put them in their 9th title game. Look out if the Eagles raise the trophy in Frisco as their six championships have come via three different back-to-back wins. Youngstown State and Appalachian State are the only other programs to do that once, with the Mountaineers winning three in a row for the only time in FCS history.
The Eagles are coming off of two straight semifinal losses, something that hasn't happened since 2001-02. However, that team had played in title games from 98-00 winning the last two after falling to UMass in '98. A third straight semifinal loss would be a first for the program.
Winning on the road has never been the forte of the Eagles in the playoffs, mainly because they haven't had to do it very often. After knocking off Northern Iowa and Nevada on the road in the semis en route to the '85 and '86 titles, it wasn't until 2000 that they pulled off the same feat again, beating Delaware in Newark to head to the finals and their eventual 6th and last title.
Sam Houston State
It is not rare for a team to lose the FCS title game and get back to the finals again the next season. It's happened seven times since 1986 and the first six times the runners-up came back and won the title. What is rare, however, is fighting back to that same point and losing two years in a row. It's only happened once, but it was recently, as Montana lost in the 2008 and 2009 title games. What's unique about SHSU's situation is that they could face the same team again, and in every instance where there has been a finals rematch, the team that lost the previous year was victorious. This even held true when Youngstown State and Marshall played three in a row from '91-'93 and traded wins.
THIS WEEK'S GAMES
Sam Houston State at Eastern Washington
Yes, the Eagles won the national championship two years ago and they're playing in the friendly confines of the Inferno in Cheney, WA. However, this is not the same team that took the title in 2010 most notably they are without the services of Bo Levi Mitchell, who engineered the stunning comeback to vanquish Delaware 20-19.
On the other side, the Bearkats of Sam Houston State seem to be a team on a mission. The performance in Bozeman last week was arguably the most impressive of the playoffs and served notice that this squad desperately wants another shot at a title in Frisco. The Bearkat offense is versatile enough to give any defense trouble and Flanders' combination of speed and cunning gives them a weapon few teams can match at this level.
It's always hard to pick a road team in the semifinals but I think Sam Houston moves forward for a shot at redemption. Bearkats 41 Eagles 30
Georgia Southern at North Dakota State
As mentioned, this is a rematch of last year's semifinal won by the Bison at the Fargo Dome. This year's game doesn't feature much different from 2011 but there's just the faintest sense that things have changed. North Dakota State doesn't seem to be playing with quite the level of confidence that last year's team had while the Eagles seem to have a little bit more toughness than the squad that fell in this game last year.
The biggest difference for the boys from Statesboro is at quarterback where McKinnon has replaced Jaybo Shaw. While Shaw was proficient at the position last year, he didn't possess quite the same gamebreaking ability that McKinnon has. The question is, does that make enough of a difference to overcome one of the most consistent, stifling defenses we've seen at the FCS level in quite some time.
For some reason, I still don't think it does. The Bison still have a tough enough group to put enough points on the board and shorten the game to the point that a turnover or two will make the difference. The home team prevails again and we've got a rematch in Frisco. Bison 24 Eagles 21