Let Saturday's FCS championship between North Dakota State and Jacksonville State serve as an appetizer to the FBS championship game on Monday. It's your last chance to watch college football on a Saturday until next season. And it's between two of the better teams in the country, at any level. The Bison rank ahead of Temple, Arizona, Texas and a lot of other notable teams in Sagarin ratings. Jacksonville State rates higher than South Carolina, Louisiana Tech, and Indiana.
Saturday's matchup could be a test of the importance of intangibles vs. tangibles. North Dakota State has the big-game experience that can't really be measured, but most would argue is obviously beneficial. The Gamecocks have been the more consistently excellent team all year - their sole loss came to Auburn in overtime, and have maybe the most explosive offense in the country. Will the Bison be the ones to finally slow them down?
Where: Frisco, Texas
When: Saturday, January 9th, 12pm ET
Line: NDSU -3, o/u: 54.5
Sagarin: NDSU: 51st, JSU: 65th
When the Gamecocks are on offense:
The irresistible force of JSU's rushing attack meets the immovable object in NDSU's defensive front. Gamecocks RB Troymaine Pope and QB Eli Jenkins have combined for 2830 yards on the ground this season, but the Bison only allow 3.44 yards per rush. Therefore, the game could come down to how well Jenkins is able to make plays through the air on third down. In the 27-20 loss to Auburn, facing a defense more similar to NDSU than any other he has seen this season, Jenkins went 26-for-43 for 277 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He and Pope combined for only 122 yards on 39 carries, and JSU relied on the passing game in the near-upset. With almost a month to prepare for the Gamecock attack, I expect the Bison to contain the JSU running game, if not completely shut it down. If he can play efficiently enough to simply keep drives going and not turn the ball over, JSU can win a low-scoring battle.
When the Bison are on offense:
Bison QB Carson Wentz, a potential 1st round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, has been out since October but it looks like he will be starting on Saturday. He brings a dynamic that was missing with redshirt freshman Easton Stick at the helm: a legitimate threat to complete big plays down the field. Stick played well in Wentz's absence, but the Bison relied much more heavily on the running game.
Jacksonville State has athletes at every level of the defense. They only give up 3.4 yards per rush and have intercepted 17 passes all year, more than the amount of passing TDs (16) they've given up. Chattanooga had some success completing some deep passes against the Gamecocks in the FCS quarterfinals when JSU stacked the box to stop the run, so look for Wentz to take some deep shots if he does get the start on Saturday.
Wentz's presence, if fully healthy, makes me lean toward picking the Bison. We saw what happened when the Bison got a second shot at Montana, and with the extra time to prepare for the Gamecocks, I think NDSU coach Chris Klieman and defensive coordinator Matt Entz will figure out similar ways to slow down the JSU offense. It'll be a low-scoring affair, I'll say NDSU 24, JSU 20.