Dec. 4, 2008

By Brandon Misener
Special to NCAA.com from D2Football.com

A fair criticism of Division II is that the same teams are successful and challenge for the national championship every year.  A quick look at a list of the champions and participants shows that to be true.

Only seven teams still playing in Division II, Valdosta State, Grand Valley, Delta State, Northwest Missouri, North Alabama, Pittsburg State and Northern Michigan have won a championship.  Only five additional teams that played football in 2008, Bloomsburg, Carson-Newman, Texas A&M-Kingsville, IUP and Central State, have appeared in the championship game.

So yes, it’s an exclusive club.  In most years, the two or three teams that were legitimately better than the rest could be identified before the season or early in the season.

Last year was different.  The number of teams that could have potentially won the championship expanded greatly.  Probably six or seven teams had the talent to have hoisted the trophy in Florence.  Coming into the 2008 season, it looked like that number could be duplicated.

It has been.

Before the season started, some may have scoffed at that notion.  How could they argue now?

Most people had Grand Valley written in as a participant in the championship game.  They were defeated last week by Minnesota-Duluth.  Abilene Christian and West Texas took the next step toward Florence.  The Buffs were eliminated by ACU and then Northwest Missouri eliminated the Wildcats.  In that same Super Region, Central Washington was ranked in the top 10 all year.  West Chester and Bloomsburg were legitimate challengers to California (Pa.) in Super Region 1.   Delta State and Valdosta State were obvious challengers to North Alabama in Super Region 2.

Basically, no team has had an easy route to the semifinals and there were potential roadblocks everywhere.

And that brings us to the semifinal round of the playoffs where Minnesota-Duluth travels to California (Pa.) and North Alabama travels to Northwest Missouri.  Each of those teams were ranked second in their super region and won on the road last week.

Overall, the remaining four teams is a perfect mix of two historically great programs, a program that is on the rise, and a program surprised to be where it is in a transition year from one conference to another.

Minnesota-Duluth vs. California (Pa.)

Minnesota-Duluth knocked off “the team of the decade” to get here.  California (Pa.) knocked off the only team that had beaten them this year.  As a result, both teams get the opportunity to advance to the championship game.

It’s refreshing to see these two conferences battling for a chance to play for it all.  The Pennsylvania State and the Northern Sun are two conferences that have struggled recently and have voted for changes in funding levels in Division II.  Since those changes were shot down, both conferences have done many things to improve their chances to compete nationally.  We are seeing the results this year.

A win by California would give the PSAC its first participant in the championship since Bloomsburg in 2000.

A win by Minnesota-Duluth would give the Northern Sun its first participant – ever.  Both are solid, but not flashy, football teams that should represent their conference well.

North Alabama vs. Northwest Missouri

Both North Alabama and Northwest Missouri avenged earlier losses to reach the national semifinals, a place with which both are familiar.  After all, the teams have combined for nine appearances in the championship game.

The two teams have met before in a semifinal matchup.  During the 2005 season, Northwest Missouri was able to sneak out of Florence with a 25-24 win, only to return a week later to face Grand Valley in the championship.

There is no doubt that the Lions will be out to pay back the Bearcats for that win.

Unlike the other semifinal matchup, these two teams and the conferences in which they play are continually represented in the national championship game.  A team from the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Association has played in six championship games in the last 10 years, winning two.  A team from the Gulf South Conference has played in four national championship games in the last 10 years, winning three.