An unprecedented season will feature an unprecedented finale.
After preseason camps in January and seasons that began as early as February, the Football Championship Subdivision is set to crown its champion Sunday when No. 2-seeded Sam Houston State faces top-seeded South Dakota State.
Kick-off inside Toyota Stadium, Frisco, Texas, is 2 p.m. EDT. ABC has the broadcast.
While the national seedings show neither team is a surprise participant, Sam Houston's journey has been an eventful one.
The Bearkats on Saturday had to erase a three-touchdown halftime deficit, 24-3, to rally past visiting and third-seeded James Madison, 38-35. The Duke attempted a game-tying field goal in the late moments but came up empty.
This rally for Sam Houston came just six days after the Bearkats needed a score inside the game's final five minutes to upend perennial powerhouse North Dakota State.
“At no point, I thought we would lose,” said SHSU coach K.C. Keeler, who improved as a head coach to 30-0 all-time in home playoff games. “We just talked about, you can't come back 21; you have to come back 7 and then 7 more. That was the theme. ...
“If you think about everything we've gone through, no locker room, COVID, losing our O-line coach and D-line coach three weeks before the season. The snow storm (that ravaged Texas earlier this year, resulting in mass losses of utilities). Over and over. These kids are just resilient.”
Now, the Bearkats get an opportunity to win the program's first-ever FCS crown, in their last game ever as a member of the Southland Conference – they transition to the Western Athletic Conference in the fall – and just 200 miles from home. SHSU lost back-to-back FCS title game appearances against North Dakota State in 2011-12.
For the No. 1 Jackrabbits, they spotted upstart Delaware a 3-0 lead Saturday afternoon at home – and then promptly eviscerated the Blue Hens with 33 unanswered points.
Though SDSU has been a playoff fixture for the past decade-plus, and hosted at least one playoff game in five consecutive postseasons, it had yet to break through the semifinals in its two previous trips, losses against powers James Madison and North Dakota State.
John Stiegelmeier, the Jackrabbits' 22-year coach, spent his victorious postgame press conference with his grandson, Theodore, sitting on his lap.
“You know when we went in 2004 (from NCAA Division II to FBS), I knew it was, but more importantly our players knew it was a chance to change the face of SDSU football,” said Stiegelmeier, an SDSU grad who has been with the program since 1988. “I would credit our first four classes. We've always talked about it and been criticized for talking about [believing they could win a national title]. We've got one more left. It means a ton, and it's a really special moment for me having been here as long as I have for every person that's worn a Jackrabbit uniform. And I've gotten to know a lot of them these last 33 years. Love our players, thank God for our players. Means a lot.”
Coach Stig also pointed to the Jackrabbits' playoff-seeding and the impact of traversing this championship path with each of their three playoff games at Dykhouse Stadium. They won the three games by a combined 95-32 margin – though they needed a dramatic rally last week in the quarterfinals to oust Southern Illinois.
“The fact that we got the No. 1 seed, the nation recognized how good a football program we are,” he said.
The Jackrabbits limited Delaware to just 216 yards' total offense. They blitzed with regularity – which worked but left Stiegelmeier a bit nervous.
“We blitzed a fair amount,” he said. “If it was up to me, we'd blitz once every 30 plays. But it's not up to me. Our coaches do a great job knowing things and tendency-wise and personnel-wise. And they make the call. When I was D-coordinator, I didn't want the head coach second-guessing me so I tried not to do that.”
Following the win, Stig wasn't going to spend Saturday after his team's win glued to the TV watching the Sam Houston-James Madison showdown.
That wasn't an option in his home.
“You're going to laugh at me, but we don't have TV at home,” Stiegelmeier said. “I'm going to watch the scores. I think we're recording it. We'll get the film, obviously. I'm going to enjoy the family we have home.”
COACH PRIME'S LATEST P-5 ADDITION
Deion Sanders already signed what has been touted as the greatest signing class in Jackson State and HBCU history, though the Tigers lost the final three times they played a game in the spring season.
Yet Coach Prime & Co. added another potential big-time impact player on Sunday, when former Georgia Tech defensive lineman Antwan Owens II announced he would continue his career with Sanders' Tigers program.
Originally a member of the 2017 signing class for the Yellow Jackets, the Tallahassee, Florida, product was a three-star prospect with multiple ACC, Big 12, Big Ten and Southeastern Conference offers, among others.
The 6-foot-4, 275-pounder appeared in 35 career games for Tech. He announced his decision to join Sanders' program Sunday on Twitter.