Philadelphia, PA – And now comes the long wait ...
For North Dakota State and Sam Houston State, there is a three-week buildup from this weekend's FCS semifinals to the national championship game on Jan. 5 at FC Dallas Stadium in Frisco, Texas.
What's different in this third year of a three-week buildup - instead of the old format when the championship game followed the semifinals a week later - is that this year's finalists know how to build their momentum again during what is an unusually long break to them.
North Dakota State defeated Sam Houston State, 17-6, in last season's national championship game.
The break, of course, is a problem any team would like to have, but neither finalist has had a layout like this since July.
The coaches involved over the last two championship games learned to treat the break as if their teams were on the FBS level and preparing for a major bowl game.
"It's kind of a mix between playing (a playoff) and being in a bowl game," North Dakota State coach Craig Bohl said. "And I really felt like the FCS was right now when they staged the championship that way. Because I think at that time it's going to give a better reflection on who the better teams are.
"What we did was we went back to the formula that Coach (Tom) Osborne had taught us when I was at Nebraska. We kept our guys on campus, we had a significant number of workouts that weren't real robust workouts, but they were keeping guys engaged. We made sure that we stayed strong in the weight room. You can lose your continuity on football and your precision so fast, particularly with the skill players. That was our plan and we were comfortable with that plan."
"There's a lot of factors," Sam Houston State coach Willie Fritz said. "The amount of time, you don't want to work your guys too hard, but you want to work them enough. I think our guys had a good plan of attack as far as what we were doing leading up to the game."
Coaches have to pull back as much as push ahead. Many players, after a long season plus three playoff games, can use the break physically if not more mentally.
They will still practice and participate in team meetings in the coming days, but by next weekend, they will go home for a short holiday stay.
The North Dakota State and Sam Houston State coaches will relay information and provide video of their opponent to their players before next weekend, but they don't want to overload the players, either. They're all trying to catch their breath - at least somewhat - before zeroing in on the game in the final 10 days.
"I think we got the kids as much video as we could on their way out, so they could come back prepared," said Delaware coach K.C. Keeler, whose team lost the 2010 title game, 20-19 to Eastern Washington. "We had a pretty experienced team, a pretty senior-laden team, great leadership, so the kids came back very focused. Not a lot of distractions. The staff, we really worked a lot up until like Dec. 22, 23. And then I gave the staff time off and said, 'Go.' So we pretty much got the game plan in. But it's funny, I came down here over the holidays and the guys are all still around. We were all still working even though I gave them time out of here."
"It was interesting," Eastern Washington coach Beau Baldwin said. "Going back to that three-week layoff, I talked to a couple teams because we were the first ones to be involved in that. That year they did that was the first time it got moved from Dec. 17, 18 all the way to Jan. 7. So you really couldn't go to any FCS teams and coaches and say, 'Well, how'd you handle this?' because no one had done it at that point.
"I talked to a few teams from a bowl game standpoint and going through that long layoff, asking a few coaching staffs what they did, how they do it because I have all sorts of resources that we can turn to at that next level and talk to them. More than anything, I tried to do everything I could to keep competing at different times in practice, keep some uptempo stuff during that Christmas holiday, during that break time."
Several days after Christmas, each team will be back on what will be a desolate campus. Their focus, though, will be entirely on the championship game.
The game plan will be installed before New Year's because the last week before the game is especially hectic. The teams figure to travel to Frisco the Wednesday before the game.
"Obviously, you have the kids all day long, so it's a little bit like being in the NFL," Keeler said. "So you can break up your meeting times. You do some stuff in the morning, like special teams meetings and the position meetings. You get them lunch and then you get them back in the afternoon and then you practice and then you get back in the weight room. I like how we spread things out, I like how short and sweet we kept practices. I thought we went in really well prepared for the game."
Once the teams hit Frisco, it's a little bit of a whirlwind as a lot is asked of the teams. Coaches and players are getting on and off team busses, going to practices, news conferences, community events, banquet meals, you name it.
It feels like, well, bowl week.
FCS SEMIFINALS ROUNDUP
A recap of the second-round playoff games can be found at http://tinyurl.com/d47zlfl.
STOCK RISING, STOCK FALLING
Rising: No new FCS coach next season will inherit a better pipeline of talent than Appalachian State's Scott Satterfield. The 39-year-old former ASU quarterback and 11-year assistant coach faces the always difficult task of replacing a legendary coach, Jerry Moore. Of course, the return of players such as quarterback Jamal Jackson and wide receiver Sean Price underscores the talent in the Southern Conference powerhouse.
Falling: Georgia Southern knows how to find its way to the end zone, but the Eagles need better directions to Frisco, Texas. Friday's 23-20 loss at North Dakota State left coach Jeff Monken's squad one win short of the FCS national championship game for the third straight season.
The four major FCS awards - the Walter Payton (FCS outstanding player), the Buck Buchanan (FCS outstanding defensive player), the Jerry Rice (FCS freshman of the year) and the Eddie Robinson (FCS coach of the year) - will be announced on Monday, Dec. 17.
All the FCS Awards can be found at http://tinyurl.com/yhv6oh8.
The Sports Network FCS All-America Team can be found at http://tinyurl.com/albtbqh.
This Weekend's Record: 2-0 (1.000)
Season Record: 580-186 (.757)
FC Dallas Stadium in Frisco, Texas
NCAA Division I Football Championship Game
X-Sam Houston State (11-3) vs. No. 1 seed North Dakota State (13-1). We nailed the championship game matchup back on Selection Sunday, but today we're as torn as Natalie Imbruglia. Sam Houston State was our preseason pick for the national title and North Dakota State was our pick before the playoffs.
A Sam Houston State win would reverse last season's NDSU defensive gem.
"North Dakota State had a heck of a game plan and really attacked us a little different than we had seen anybody attack all season," Fritz said. "Defensively, we played lights out. The game boiled down to seven or eight plays, one of which was the big fake punt (in the third quarter), an excellent call ... the big interception (by NDSU's Travis Beck) down to the (Sam Houston State) 1. And then we had some short-yardage situations that we just didn't convert that really could have helped up out."