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Commentary: In the end, much is the same for this FCS football season

UND will play in the FCS quarterfinals on Sunday at James Madison University.

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UND's Hayden Reynolds runs into the endzone in the third quarter on a return on a partially blocked Missouri State punt. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service

For the last two months, we've heard day after day, week after week, about the strangeness of this FCS spring football season.

All of its oddities seem to be chalked up to the spring -- not the pandemic -- as if nobody watched the FBS schools face the exact same challenges in the fall.

If you need a memory refresher, you'll get one Thursday night when the first round of the NFL Draft prominently features players who opted out of the fall season -- LSU's Ja'Marr Chase, Oregon's Penei Sewell, Northwestern's Rashawn Slater, Penn State's Micah Parsons, Virginia Tech's Caleb Farley and so on.

If that doesn't do it, perhaps you'll remember the Big Ten and Pac-12 initially wiped out their seasons only to return and start a month and a half late; there was a five-week stretch where 75 games were canceled; Washington made the Pac-12 title game with three wins only to drop out because of COVID-19, opening the door for 3-2 Oregon to win the title; the Big Ten changed its rules on the fly to get Ohio State into its title game; and Notre Dame played for a conference championship in a league in which it is not a member.

Oddities happened last fall, too. That's the nature of trying to safely play sports during a global pandemic.

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Yes, the timing of the FCS season was different, but we've seen that, too.

Major League Baseball started in late July, played a 60-game regular season, seven-inning doubleheaders and started a runner in scoring position in extra innings.

The Stanley Cup Playoffs were played in August, September and October. The Finals occurred in Edmonton between teams located in Florida and Texas.

The NBA Finals were played in November at Disney.

The French Open, always played in Paris' June heat, was held in 40-degree weather in October.

The Masters golf tournament, an annual signal that spring is coming, was played in November.

A lot of high-profile sports seasons and events were shifted to completely different times in the calendar. They were all played with empty or limited crowds. They all had opt outs, cancelations, postponements and different challenges.

But here's the thing: Alabama won the FBS national championship. Tom Brady won the Super Bowl and the game's MVP. LeBron James won the NBA Finals and the MVP. Rafael Nadal won the October French Open, his 13th title at Roland Garros. Dustin Johnson, the world's No. 1 golfer, won the November Masters. The Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup. And the Los Angeles Dodgers won the World Series.

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Fairly routine, right?

Although the seasons and tournaments were extremely unconventional, we've had pretty much the most conventional winners possible during the pandemic sports season.

That brings us to the FCS, which will hold its quarterfinals Sunday.

The eight teams remaining? North Dakota State. James Madison. South Dakota State. Sam Houston State. Jacksonville State. Delaware. Southern Illinois. UND.

If someone were to say, pre-pandemic, that those eight teams would be in the quarterfinals this season, would anyone stop and question whether something out of the ordinary happened to produce such quarterfinalists? Would anyone come to the conclusion that it had to have been one crazy, bizarre season? No.

Five of the eight teams have played for the national title since 2010. That does not include South Dakota State, which has twice been a game away.

UND has never gotten this far, but there have been signs it's coming. The Fighting Hawks have made the playoffs three of the last five years, earned a top-eight seed once and were a fourth-quarter meltdown away from the quarterfinals in 2016.

Sure, there have been plenty of oddities this FCS season, just like every other sport the last 13 months. But after a months-long drumbeat -- some trying to minimize this FCS season -- here we are with three weeks to go, eight teams left standing, and they're as normal and routine as ever.

Schlossman has covered college hockey for the Grand Forks Herald since 2005. He has been recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors as the top beat writer for the Herald's circulation division four times and the North Dakota sportswriter of the year once. He resides in Grand Forks. Reach him at bschlossman@gfherald.com.
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