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Jeff Kolpack, Published November 24 2012

"One" reason to be wary: Top seeds haven't translated to FCS championships in past years

Fargo - North Dakota State was named the No. 1 seed for the Division I Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. It was a nice reward, and it guarantees the Bison home-field advantage throughout the playoffs as long as they win.

That’s the good news.

History tells us it could also be bad news. Since 1995, only two No. 1 seeds have held court and won a national title – Montana in 2001 and Appalachian State in 2006. Six others, including Sam Houston State last year, reached the title game but lost.

The rest barely got settled in the playoffs before taking an early exit. It’s happened so often that it’s hard to call any top-seeded team losing an upset.

The reason is simple: parity. With a maximum 63 scholarships in the division, the general consensus is it’s difficult for a team to create enough talent and depth to be significantly better than everybody else, especially late in the season when injuries and fatigue take their toll.

Jon Kasper, assistant commissioner of the Big Sky Conference and a former beat writer covering Montana for the Missoulian newspaper, says the last team that fit that footprint was Marshall in the mid-1990s.

“I don’t think since the days of Randy Moss and Chad Pennington has there been a real dominant team,” Kasper said.

Pennington was the quarterback and Moss, of course, the receiver. Marshall went unbeaten in 1996 and beat the Grizzlies 49-29 in the title game. The Thundering Herd averaged 43.8 points a game, going over 50 points five times.

Marshall was the last FCS, formerly named Division I-AA, team to go through a season unbeaten. Even Appalachian State, in the year it beat Michigan, lost two games.

Part of the reason is many FCS teams are scheduling more games against Division I Football Bowl Subdivision teams. But mostly, it goes back to the parity factor.

“You can have a team start off with an FBS loss, lose a conference game but get hot at the right time,” Kasper said.

He pointed to Eastern Washington’s 2010 title when the Eagles lost two games early in the season and then won their last 11. One of those victories was an overtime, quarterfinal win over NDSU, which had ideas of becoming the first four-loss team to win a national title.

In 2005, Northern Iowa reached the playoffs with three losses, but knocked off No. 1 New Hampshire in the quarterfinals. In 2007, the Panthers were the No. 1 seed, but lost to Delaware in the quarterfinals.

“That was Joe Flacco’s team,” said Jim Sullivan, who covers UNI for the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier newspaper. “They ran into some pretty good opposition there. The competition is just so even more than anything.”

Flacco has gone on to a successful career in the NFL with the Baltimore Ravens.

In all, seven top-seeded teams since 1997 have lost in the first round, second round or quarterfinals. Two teams lost in the first round in back-to-back years: McNeese State in 2003 to Northern Arizona and Southern Illinois in 2004 to Eastern Washington. In both cases, defense was the culprit, giving up 35 points in each game.

NDSU went 14-1 last year and is 10-1 heading into Saturday’s second round.

“At the beginning of the year, I thought North Dakota State was as close as I’ve seen to a clear-cut, absolute no. 1 team (since Marshall), Kasper said.

In the FCS, that’s saying something.

“That’s why it’s great they play it on the field and not in the polls or by committee,” Kasper said.

Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack can be reached at (701) 241-5546.

Kolpack’s NDSU media blog can be found

at www.areavoices.com/bisonmedia