Before we go any further, a round of applause for all involved. The decision to play in the spring, which seemed hairy in January, February and March, paid off. The FCS reached the finish line and, barring a catastrophic prescription of contact tracing between now and Sunday, not only will the championship game happen, it'll be played on time, just like the 14 playoff games that led to this point. The stands will be 50 percent full, the weather should be... okay, the forecast calls for scattered thunderstorms, but the game is happening and that's the important point. Well done, all.
Now, to the topic at hand.
What: FCS National Championship
Who: No. 2 Sam Houston (9-0) vs. No. 1 South Dakota State (8-1)
When: 2 p.m. ET Sunday
Where: Toyota Stadium, Frisco, Texas
Spread: Sam Houston +5.5
The Football Championship Subdivision will crown its first, first-time national champion since the 2011 season, when Sam Houston met a pre-dynastic North Dakota State. The Bearkats have been to this stage twice, falling to the Bison in 2011 and '12. (The program does claim a 1964 NAIA co-national championship; the title game ended in a tie). South Dakota State has never been here. SDSU started playing football in 1900, SHSU in 1912.
Point being: Sunday will be the best day in someone's program history. The question is, who?
When Sam Houston has the ball: The Bearkats haven't exactly lit the world on fire from an efficiency perspective in the playoffs. Quarterback Eric Schmid is 50-of-88 for 578 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions; his 6.6 yards per attempt average (on 57 percent passing) is well down from his 10.1 regular season average. The Bearkats are running for 3.77 yards per carry in the postseason; remove a 56-yard Ramon Jefferson run against Monmouth in the quarterfinals and the number drops to 3.15.
Without the benefit of down-to-down success, Sam Houston will need to hit Jequez Ezzard for a big play or two. The Southland Conference newcomer of the year and AP Second Team All-American caught a 69-yard touchdown against James Madison. He averaged 27 yards per reception and one out of every four grabs ends in a touchdown. Can SHSU's coaches use the threat of Ezzard to scheme other players open?
And though the Bearkats may not be able to count on multiple 10-play drives against a top-20 Jackrabbit defense -- SDSU has held two of its three playoff opponents, including Delaware in the semifinals -- Sam Houston is imminently comfortable being uncomfortable. Trailing 20-17 midway through the fourth quarter against North Dakota State, SHSU went 72 yards in nine plays, including a 48-yard connection from Schmid to Ife Adeyi on a 3rd-and-10 to set up first-and-goal. After a disastrous 24-0 second quarter by James Madison in the semifinals, the Bearkats scored touchdowns on four straight drives to overcome a 21-point deficit.
The whole offense plays with a cornerback mentality: no amount of previous failure will stop them from succeeding in the present. If Sam Houston finds itself trailing 14-10 and needing to go 85 yards in three minutes, they can rally the troops and get it done.
When South Dakota State has the ball: The recipe for Jackrabbit success is getting Isaiah Davis and Pierre Strong going on the ground so Mark Gronowski can slice and dice opponents through the air. In three playoff games, Davis has run 29 times for 268 yards, Strong 36 times for 199, good for 7.2 yards a pop between them. Gronowski has thrown 21, 16 and 16 passes in those three games, but those 53 throws have gone for 9.4 yards per attempt with seven touchdowns against no interceptions.
At seven yards per rush and nine and a half per pass, it's no wonder South Dakota State's 31.7 playoff scoring average is slightly ahead of its regular season average of 29.3.
Sam Houston is allowing 23.3 points per game in the playoffs, but that's a deceiving number. Monmouth's 15 points came when Sam Houston had already taken a 21-0 lead, North Dakota State reached 20 points without an offensive touchdown, and James Madison scored 21 points over the course of six inexplicable minutes and 11 over the other 54.
After consecutive blowout losses to James Madison and North Dakota State in 2016-17, KC Keeler rebuilt his entire program around defending the run in playoff games and that strategy has paid off thus far. The Bearkats have defended a whopping 139 runs in three playoff games -- that's 46 a game -- but allowed just 2.87 per carry.
Both teams will be in their element when the Jackrabbits run the ball, but the game will be decided on those four-ish plays a quarter when Gronowski throws the ball.
The pick: I've picked against Sam Houston in the last two rounds and both times they proved me wrong. Playing against the No. 1 program in FCS and the No. 1 team in the polls, it wasn't always pretty but the Bearkats got it done both times. Now against the No. 1 team in the bracket, it's time to... make that mistake again. South Dakota State 24, Sam Houston 20.