FARGO-There's no cool moniker for the last four teams remaining in the Division I FCS playoffs-like NCAA basketball's Final Four-but there is no questioning the pedigree of the teams still playing. North Dakota State, James Madison, Youngstown State and Eastern Washington are all considered heavyweights in the subdivision.
In Youngstown's case, the Penguins are trying to restore the program to the prominence of the 1990s. JMU won a national championship in 2004 and is a perennial contender for the Colonial Athletic Association title. Eastern won the 2010 FCS crown and is a yearly participant in the upper echelon of the FCS national polls.
"If you look at this year, I believe these are the best four teams left," said NDSU head coach Chris Klieman.
Klieman is no stranger to this conversation. As a player for Northern Iowa in the 1990s, he played against Youngstown during its peak. He's been a part of the NDSU staff for the five straight FCS titles, with one of the playoff wins coming against James Madison in 2011.
The two hook up again Friday at 6 p.m. at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome in a semifinal matchup that will get the winner a trip to Frisco, Texas, and a berth in the FCS championship game. Youngstown plays at Eastern Washington on Saturday in the other semifinal.
"It's fun to be a part of these four," Klieman said. "The team that comes out of this four will definitely have earned it."
In James Madison, the Bison will see a team that is hot. The Dukes blitzed previously unbeaten Sam Houston State 65-7 in the quarterfinals and beat New Hampshire 55-22 in the second round. They lead the FCS in scoring offense, averaging 49.6 points per game.
It's been a debut season to remember for first-year head coach Mike Houston, who came to James Madison after two seasons at The Citadel. One of the first orders of business for Houston was to strengthen a mentality of being more physical.
He pointed to NDSU as the standard in that style of play.
"They're the five-time defending national champion, and if you're going to have any chance at beating them, you're going to have to be physical," Houston said. "And you're going to have to combat their physicality. In essence, we've built this team to try and go win this game." Like last week, it's uncertain to the status of NDSU linebacker Pierre Gee-Tucker, who has been out over three weeks with a sprained MCL. Gee-Tucker warmed up before the 36-10 win over South Dakota State in the quarterfinals, but did not dress for the game.
"I didn't think he could move well enough laterally," Klieman said.
Klieman said he's hopeful Gee-Tucker will be able to practice this week. Meanwhile, starting cornerback Jaylaan Wimbush left the SDSU game with a rib injury. He was scheduled for an MRI on Monday, Klieman said.
It will be the fifth straight Friday night semifinal for NDSU, a schedule that's more hectic at the beginning of the week than the end. Klieman said Monday's practice has to be treated more like a Tuesday workout.
Moreover, it's finals week at NDSU, which could force the Bison to adjust their practice schedule.
"It's a challenging week," Klieman said.
James Madison at NDSU
When: 6 p.m., Friday
Where: Gate City Bank Field, Fargodome