Philadelphia, PA – The FCS has come back to where the year started back in January, with North Dakota State and Sam Houston State playing in the national championship game.
While that may appear to make the 2012 season the same as 2011, there was much more focus this year on what took place on the field. A year ago, the off-the- field issues dominated while the conference merry-go-round spun out of control.
So as we head to NDSU-SHSU II, here are the Top 10 biggest stories of the 2012 FCS season:
10. Receiving records fall - Eastern Illinois' pass-happy offense set a tone for the season when junior wide receiver Erik Lora caught 13 passes in an opening-night win over Southern Illinois. He surpassed the FCS record for receptions in a season on his final catch of the regular season, then added 12 more in a playoff game to give him 136 in 12 games. Lora's 1,664 receiving yards were the fourth-highest total in FCS history, but Eastern Washington junior Brandon Kaufman wasn't impressed enough. He got red hot in the playoffs and finished his season with 1,850 yards for a new FCS record.
9. A rush to 2,000 - Just when you thought it was safe to chuck the ball like Eastern Illinois and Eastern Washington, here came the 2,000-yard rushers. South Dakota State sophomore Zach Zenner (2,044) and Wofford senior Eric Breitenstein (2,035), who was third in the Walter Payton Award voting, became the second pair of 2,000-yard rushers in an FCS season - Sacramento State's Charles Roberts and New Hampshire's Jerry Azumah first did it in 1998. Walter Payton Award runner-up Miguel Maysonet was 36 yards shy of making it a trio of 2,000-yard backs this season.
8. CAA stumbles again - There has been divided opinions on CAA Football over the past two seasons, either the conference formerly dubbed the "SEC of the FCS" has been knocked from the top perch or its demise has been grossly overstated. The former seemed more plausible after the CAA didn't have a team reach No. 1 during the season and then had all of its playoff qualifiers - down from five to three - out by the end of the quarterfinals.
7. Sam Houston State wins the 'Big Sky' title again - Five of the Bearkats' six playoff wins the last two seasons have come over Big Sky Conference teams. After taking down Big Sky co-champions, Montana State and Montana, in last year's playoffs, coach Willie Fritz's squad pulled an even more impressive sweep of the Big Sky tri-champions this year, edging Cal Poly at home in the second round and then going on the road to beat Montana State in the quarterfinals and Eastern Washington in the semifinals, earning a return trip to Frisco, Texas, and another shot at the FCS national title.
6. Year of the tri-champions (and more) - "It's better to share" wasn't stated for football, but FCS conference champions took to the concept. Four conferences had three teams share their championship: Big Sky (Cal Poly, Eastern Washington and Montana State); Big South (Coastal Carolina, Liberty and Stony Brook); Pioneer (Butler, Drake and San Diego); and Southern (Appalachian State, Georgia Southern and Wofford). The CAA went a step beyond with four teams - New Hampshire, Richmond, Towson and Villanova - sharing the title because Old Dominion was ineligible for it in its final season before moving on to the FBS level.
5. Bursting bubble - The amount of teams with playoff-worthy resumes seemed to be more unwieldy than ever in this final season of a 20-team playoff, including 10 at-large bids. The teams with the biggest gripes after their bubble burst were Lehigh (10-1) from the Patriot League, Richmond (8-3) and Towson (7-4) for the CAA, Eastern Kentucky (8-3) and UT Martin (8-3) from the Ohio Valley Conference and Northern Arizona (8-3) from the Big Sky. The playoff field will be 24 teams, with 13 at-large teams, next year.
4. FBS who? - Or perhaps it's FC-yes! Four FCS teams defeated FBS opponents in the season's first week, McNeese State over Middle Tennessee and Eastern Washington over Idaho on opening night, and Youngstown State over Pittsburgh and UT Martin over Memphis two days later. By the end of September, six more FCS teams (North Dakota State, Illinois State, Sacramento State, Northern Arizona, Cal Poly and Stony Brook) had victories over FBS opponents, taking the total to 10, the most in a season since there were 10 in 2003. The last time the number was higher was 11 in 2001.
3. Taylor Heinicke's record-setting season - No FCS quarterback had more fun slinging the ball than Old Dominion sophomore Taylor Heinicke. The Monarchs' 64-61 win over New Hampshire on Sept. 22 was a career-defining game for Heinicke as he passed for 730 yards and had 791 total yards - both single-game records for Division I. The 2012 Walter Payton Award winner went on to complete 398 passes and throw for 5,076 yards - both FCS single-season records.
2. Jerry Moore out at Appalachian State - It wasn't surprising that legendary coach Jerry Moore, at age 73, concluded his career at Appalachian State after 24 years and his three straight national titles from 2005-07. But the fact he didn't depart on his own terms - he told athletic director Charlie Cobb that he wanted to coach one more season - was the stunning aspect of the Dec. 2 announcement. Under the 2006 Eddie Robinson Award recipient, Appalachian State won a Southern Conference-record 215 games and 10 conference championships, and made 18 playoff appearances. It was an awkward end to a great career.
1. NDSU's continued dominance - Indeed, we're back to where we started because North Dakota State didn't stop mugging opponents. The Bison whipped Sam Houston State's high-powered offense for a 17-6 win in the 2011 FCS title game last January. This season, coach Craig Bohl's squad (and coordinator Chris Klieman's defense) has allowed a touchdown or less in seven wins and ranks No. 1 in the FCS scoring defense (11.4 ppg) and total defense (223.3 ypg). Led by quarterback Brock Jensen and left tackle Billy Turner on offense and linebacker Grant Olson and cornerback Marcus Williams on defense, the Bison were ranked No. 1 in nine of the 12 regular season polls. They take a 13-1 record into the national final against Sam Houston State on Jan. 5.