Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - North Dakota State football has been the story of the decade in the FCS, but in 2014 the Bison have had some sharing to do within their Missouri Valley Football Conference.
Illinois State earned a share of the Valley title alongside NDSU and, although both programs didn't meet in the regular season, they will square off in the FCS championship game on Jan. 10 in Frisco, Texas - the first time the two national finalists are members of the same FCS conference.
Here's a Top 10 countdown of a memorable 2014 across the FCS, dominated by you-know-what conference:
10. FBS Wins Cut in Half - FCS teams posted a record 16 wins over FBS programs in 2013, but the number was only eight this year. One of the highlights was North Dakota State claiming a win over the FBS for the fifth year in a row, 34-14 at Iowa State on Aug. 30. Also, Yale was a rare host to an FBS program, celebrating the 100th anniversary season of its Yale Bowl by defeating Army, 49-43, in overtime on running back Tyler Varga's fifth touchdown on Sept. 27.
9. Defensive Ends Everywhere - A defensive end, North Dakota State senior Kyle Emanuel, won the 20th annual Buck Buchanan Award as the outstanding defensive player in the FCS, and the talent at the position was better than at any other one in the nation. Any All-American team left off countless worthy candidates. The Sports Network FCS All-America first team included defensive ends Emanuel, Chattanooga's Davis Tull and Montana's Zack Wagenmann.
8. New Hampshire No. 1 - While qualifying for the FCS playoffs for an 11th consecutive season, New Hampshire grabbed the No. 1 ranking for the first time since the 2006 season. The Wildcats, under Eddie Robinson Award winner Sean McDonnell, went unbeaten in the CAA Football and captured a school-record 12 straight games before falling to Illinois State in the national semifinals on Dec. 20.
7. Conference Favorites Rule - Surprise champions and title contenders are an annual staple across the FCS, but the preseason favorites were in control in 2014. Out of 13 conferences, 11 favorites captured at least a share of its conference title: Eastern Washington (Big Sky), Coastal Carolina (Big South), New Hampshire (CAA), Bethune-Cookman (MEAC), North Dakota State (Missouri Valley), Sacred Heart (Northeast), Jacksonville State (Ohio Valley), Fordham (Patriot), San Diego (Pioneer), Chattanooga (Southern) and Southeastern Louisiana (Southland). Southern reached the SWAC championship game, leaving only Princeton to fall flat in the Ivy League.
6. Grambling Revival - First-year coach Broderick Fobbs turned around the fortunes of Grambling State, his alma mater, a year after a turbulent season in which there was three different coaches in charge, the players staged a six- day walkout in protest of conditions in the program and refused to travel to a game at Jackson State - forcing the Southwestern Athletic Conference program into a forfeit - and the Tigers won only one game for a second consecutive season. Under Fobbs, the historically black national power won its first seven SWAC games and nearly reached the conference championship game in a 7-5 campaign.
5. Year of the Quarterbacks ... - Sure, it's a quarterback's game today, but the Walter Payton Award has really come to belong to the quarterbacks. The count of winners was once nine running backs, seven quarterbacks and one wide receiver. But Villanova signal caller John Robertson claiming the 28th annual award - the Heisman of the FCS - marked the 11th straight win by a quarterback. Also invited to the Payton announcement were two other QBs, runner-up Vernon Adams Jr. of Eastern Washington and third-place finisher Justin Arias of Idaho State.
4. ... Or (More Likely) Year of the Running Backs - South Dakota State senior Zach Zenner's romp over Montana State in a snowy playoff game highlighted his third straight season of surpassing 2,000 rushing yards - a first in NCAA Division I. Thanks greatly to his amazing three-peat, there has been two 2,000-yard rushers in each of the past three FCS seasons (Illinois State junior Marshaun Coprich is the other back to do so this season and North Dakota State senior John Crockett could make it a trio). Before 2012, there was only one such season with multiple 2,000-yard backs. Three FCS running backs - Towson's Terrance West (Cleveland Browns), Georgia Southern's Jerick McKinnon (Minnesota Vikings) and Coastal Carolina's Lorenzo Taliaferro (Baltimore Ravens) were selected in the first four rounds of the NFL Draft in May and had an impact along with undrafted rookie Isaiah Crowell (Cleveland) from Alabama State.
3. Bison, Bison and More Bison - North Dakota State is a known brand not just in the FCS but in all of college football (just ask ESPN's "College GameDay"). The Bison opened the year by becoming the second program to win a third straight FCS championship, routing Towson, 35-7, in the final. Chris Klieman took the coaching reins from Craig Bohl and his program never let up, extending a nearly 25-month winning streak to an FCS-record 33 games before it lost to Northern Iowa on Nov. 8. With a 14-1 record, the Bison are headed back to Frisco, Texas, to try to win an unprecedented fourth straight title.
2. Coaching Carousel - The head coaching changes for 2014 got a head start late last year and it wasn't pretty. An unsettling 28 of the 124 FCS programs - a whopping 22.6 percent - had new head coaches this season. The big successes included Fobbs (Grambling State), Klieman (North Dakota State), Greg Gattuso (Albany), John Grass (Jacksonville State), Everett Withers (James Madison), Lee Hull (Morgan State), Jody Sears (Sacramento State), K.C. Keeler (Sam Houston State) and Clint Conque (Central Arkansas). The big-name changes after this season included former Nebraska coach Bo Pelini stepping into a ready-to-go situation at Youngstown State, Brian Jenkins leaving Bethune-Cookman for Alabama State and Bob Stitt replacing the retiring Mick Delaney at Montana.
1. Valley Boys - The Missouri Valley Football Conference basically lapped the field in remaining the nation's best FCS conference. With co-champions Illinois State and North Dakota State set to square off in the national championship game, the Missouri Valley is the first conference to have both national finalists (national playoffs began in the 1978 season). Valley teams went 30-2 against non-conference opponents - losing only to Top 10 teams - and the conference tied the FCS record with five playoff qualifiers. Indiana State, Northern Iowa and South Dakota State also participated in the playoffs, while Youngstown State ended the regular season ranked in the Top 25 despite not reaching the postseason. The only team to beat either Illinois State or NDSU is Northern Iowa. It's been pure dominance out of the Valley.