It's finally here. Tomorrow, in Chattanooga, TN, Appalachian State will play Northern Iowa to determine the true champion of I-AA. It's determined on the field, not by a bunch of sportswriters or computer formulas.
Of the 16 teams in the I-AA playoffs, you could make an argument that the two most consistent and deep teams made the championship. Both have survived injuries to their QBs to make it here. Both have won with a combination of above-average offenses and defenses - they are teams with few, if any, huge weaknesses.
If there's a talent advantage, it could marginally go to Appalachian State, since they place three Sports Network first and second team All-Americans to Northern Iowa's zero. But the road to Chattanooga has been littered with teams with supposedly more talent than the Panthers. Eastern Washington learned in the 1st round that it would take more than QB Erik Meyer and WR Eric Kimble to win the game. New Hampshire learned in the quarterfinals that it would take more than QB Ricky Santos and WR David Ball to beat them. And Texas State learned that it takes a whole lot more than superstar QB Barrick Nealy to win it all for them in OT. The Panthers have chewed up and spit out "more talented" teams by being solid everywhere, and challenging their opponents as an entire team.
That's not to say that Appalachian St. hasn't also been tested. In the first round, Lafayette gave them all they could handle before finally taking care of business in the 4th quarter. Southern Illinois couldn't get by the tough Mountaineer defense, but Furman came right at them. With App St.'s all-star QB Richie Williams going down with an injury, backup QB Trey Elder came off the bench and led the Mountaineers to the winning score. The Furman game in particular showed that this team has the will to withstand some adversity as well.
It's looking like Richie Williams will start in the championship game, which is great for him and I-AA football in general. With a great matchup like this one tomorrow, you don't want to see any injuries marring the final result. We will truly know tomorrow who the best team will be in all of I-AA.
A very quick tale of the tape:
QBs: App St. features Richie Williams, a multifaceted star that can kill you with his arm or his legs in the Donovan McNabb mold. UNI's Eric Sanders is more of a pure pocket passer, more like a Danny Wuerffel style. When you compare these guy's pros and cons, they all cancel each other out. Advantage: Even.
RBs: ASU's Kevin Richardson is a prime-time performer, who has speed to the outside, but can also run off-tackle when he needs to. UNI's David Horne is a great back, but doesn't appear to bring quite the same explosiveness to the table. Advantage: ASU.
WRs: Both teams spread the ball around an awful lot, but UNI's trio of Hunter, Surrency and Goodwin have produced more - especially in the clutch in playoff time. Advantage: UNI.
"O" Line: The Panthers get the edge. In time of possession and in 3rd down conversions, they're among the best in I-AA, and it's won them games in the playofff. Advantage: UNI.
"D" Line: ASU's defensive ends are for real. ESPN2's commenators, even though they repeated it ad nauseum, do have it right. These guys are good, and you have to account for them always. Advantage: ASU.
LBs: The Panthers have the edge, with a pair of solid tacklers in Darin Heideman and Brett Koebke. The LB crew, with their heady interception of Nealy in overtime in Texas, is one huge reason why they're here. Advantage: UNI.
DBs: UNI has some greatly talented DBs in Tanner Varner and Dre Dokes, but ASU's duo of Corey Lynch and Jeremy Wiggins are slightly better. Both of these defensive backfields are among the elite of I-AA, but I'm giving a slight edge to ASU. Advantage: ASU.
Special teams: No doubt about it, UNI's special teams have the edge. Kicking, punting and return yardage all favor the Panthers. Advantage: UNI.
Fearless Prediction: This should be everything people are expecting. A close game going down to the wire, with a lot of heart going into every play. I think it will be one for the ages. I think UNI wins with the same formula they've been using in the playoffs. Get to a 2-score lead, control the ball, and be in it at the end. I think UNI does it once again.
UNI 37, App St. 31, OT