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 four.
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 and Towson.
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 preseason poll.
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 champions.
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 well.
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 the opposition.
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 running.
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