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The FCS's version of March Madness on display with the University of San Diego

FARGO -- It was in 2006 when the University of San Diego, behind record-setting quarterback Josh Johnson, was motoring through its FCS schedule by leading the country in total offense and scoring defense. It doesn't get much more dominating than ...

Running back Jereke Armstrong and San Diego play a second-round FCS playoff game at North Dakota State Saturday, Dec. 3. Photo by San Diego athletics
Sep 3, 2016; San Diego, CA, USA; New Hampshire Wildcats cornerback Casey DeAndrade (28) reacts to a call during the fourth quarter against the San Diego State Aztecs at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

FARGO - It was in 2006 when the University of San Diego, behind record-setting quarterback Josh Johnson, was motoring through its FCS schedule by leading the country in total offense and scoring defense. It doesn't get much more dominating than that.

And the Toreros third-year head coach Jim Harbaugh was trying to let anybody and everybody know about it, said Michael Mirer, who covered UC Davis football for the Davis Enterprise newspaper.

"Harbaugh spent weeks campaigning in the press to get a playoff spot," Mirer said. "And no one really took it seriously because of the league."

The league was the Pioneer Football League, the non-scholarship conference that did not have an automatic qualifier to what was then the 16-team FCS tournament. The one shot where the Toreros could have proven they belonged with the FCS scholarship boys came late in November when they took their 18-game winning streak to a non-conference game with Davis.

The Aggies, by the way, were reeling after a deflating 28-24 comeback win by North Dakota State University that saw the Bison overcome a 24-0 halftime deficit. At 5-5, Davis was in danger of seeing its coveted streak of 37 straight winning seasons come to an end against a San Diego team that was ranked 16th in the FCS poll.

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The Aggies broke a 25-all second half tie with a fourth quarter touchdown and eventually winning 37-27. Harbaugh's playoff quest had for the most part come to an end.

"My memory is the Sports Network guys who wrote about FCS at the time thought Harbaugh was being silly," Mirer said.

The Toreros are silly no more. Eventually, Harbaugh was right.

They'll be at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome Saturday, Dec. 3, in a FCS second round playoff matchup against NDSU.

There were two breakthroughs: One, the FCS expanding the playoff field to 24 teams in 2013 and granting the Pioneer an autobid. Two, San Diego upsetting California Poly of the fully-funded Big Sky Conference 35-21 last Saturday in the first round.

"There are some who think the bracket needs to be reduced to 20," said Patty Viverito, who holds dual roles as the commissioner for the Missouri Valley Football Conference and the Pioneer. "Some scoff at the Pioneer League getting an AQ. Is that legitimate? Well, I guess it is."

In a sense, San Diego's win over Cal Poly was the FCS version of March Madness in the NCAA basketball tournament. The Toreros are the Cinderella kids, not only being the lone road team to win out of eight first round games but doing it from a league that was once laughed at in Harbaugh's days at the school.

"I'm sure knowing Jim he pushed like hell for it," said San Diego head coach Dale Lindsey. "All I know is Jim made his mark at USD and I think helped jump-start this program into being a winning program."

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Viverito also points to North Carolina A&T of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference getting an at-large bid to this year's playoffs as a reason to have 24. The Aggies got a non-conference FBS win over Kent State to prove their resume, although they didn't hold up like San Diego did in the first round. The Aggies were thumped 39-10 by Richmond last week.

Others are not fully on board with a 24-team FCS field-like NDSU head coach Chris Klieman. He would prefer a tournament of 16.

"I wish it would end before Christmas like it used to," he said. "At the same respect, you're taking away opportunities for playoff teams. We may be one of those in the coming years. But I don't think it will change, I think they'll stay with 24 and do it the way that it is."

In 2006, the title game was played on Dec. 15. In NDSU's five titles, the championship game was played in early January.

"It's unbelievably hard physically for teams continuing to play without that bye week," Klieman said. "It's really hard mentally."

Harbaugh, of course, went on to bigger coaching stops at Stanford, the San Francisco 49ers and now Michigan. You have to wonder, somewhere, if he'll be paying attention to what will be transpiring Saturday at the Fargodome.

"Yeah, it's crazy that they're getting to the second round," Mirer said.

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Related Topics: FOOTBALLCHRIS KLIEMAN
Jeff would like to dispel the notion he was around when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, but he is on his third decade of reporting with Forum Communications. The son of a reporter and an English teacher, and the brother of a reporter, Jeff has worked at the Jamestown Sun, Bismarck Tribune and since 1990 The Forum, where he's covered North Dakota State athletics since 1995.
Jeff has covered all nine of NDSU's Division I FCS national football titles and has written three books: "Horns Up," "North Dakota Tough" and "Covid Kids." He is the radio host of "The Golf Show with Jeff Kolpack" April through August.
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