- Associated Press - Friday, December 16, 2016

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) - Northwest Missouri State coach Adam Dorrel was almost moved to tears after his Bearcats clinched their second consecutive Division II championship game appearance, his thoughts turning to the 16 seniors who will be suiting up for the final time.

“It is hard not to get emotional when you talk about our team and their performance,” Dorrel said after a semifinal victory over Ferris State, when three starters went down with injuries. “I thought it was one of the gutsier performances in Bearcat history.”

There have been plenty of them heading into Saturday’s game against North Alabama.

Northwest Missouri State (14-0) is on the cusp of back-to-back unbeaten seasons, and the third in a four-year stretch. The Bearcats are also tied for the most Division II national championships with North Dakota State, now a Football Championship Subdivision powerhouse, with five apiece.

Dorrel has elevated the Bearcats to still another level since taking over six years ago. They’ve won 29 straight games, the longest active win streak for any level of NCAA football. In fact, their coach has only lost eight games total and none since Nov. 22, 2014.

Their semifinal victory may have been their most memorable yet.

They lost quarterback Kyle Zimmerman, starting cornerback Marcus Jones and starting wide receiver George Sehl, and Ferris State made it a one-point game early in the third quarter. But the Bearcats kept making crucial stops on defense, and Northwest Missouri State had enough to put the game away.

Zimmerman said Thursday night that he expects to play in the championship game.

“It’s huge,” Dorrel said. “When you come off a season of going 15-0, as magical as it was last year, it’s very hard to get caught in the pressure.”

North Alabama, a perennial Division II powerhouse in the 1990s, is back on the rise. The Lions beat last year’s runner-up, Shepherd, to reach its first championship game since 1995 - the last of three straight titles that the program captured.

The Lions (11-1) have managed to replace three-year starting quarterback Luke Wingo and rebound from a loss to FCS power Jacksonville State in their opener. They’ve won 11 straight since, including a pair of wins over ranked Division II teams in their first four games.

Their new quarterback, Jacob Tucker, is a finalist for the Harlon Hill Trophy given to the division’s top player after throwing for 2,661 yards and 21 TDs and running for 902 yards and 16 more scores.

Perhaps it makes sense that North Alabama is back among the nation’s best.

Bobby Wallace led them to those heights in the 1990s before leaving to take over Temple, where he never could get things going in eight seasons. He took over rival West Alabama for five seasons, briefly retired, and now is back leading the Lions, with four straight conference titles and a 39-9 record over that span.

This is the penultimate chance for North Alabama to win another national title. The school announced last week that all of its programs are moving to Division I status starting in 2018.

Nothing would be better than to start their final full year in Division II as champions.

“I’ve spoken this whole year, we’re not satisfied until we’re playing on December 17th,” North Alabama defensive back Dorsey Norris said. “Now that we’ll be playing on December 17th, our mindset has to change to we have to win (on) December 17th.”


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