Defending national champion and owner of six titles, Carroll (13-1) has been a force in the last decade. All six of the Fighting Saints' national championships have come since 2002. That amount is one shy of the all-time record of seven, held by former NAIA member Texas A&I. Carroll also competed in the 2008 title game and the 2011 event marks the eighth trip to Rome in the last 10 years. No other NAIA program has advanced to the national championship game more times during any 10-year span.
"We are very excited about this opportunity," said Carroll head coach Mike Van Diest. "There is a lot of newness to this team with 25 different travel squad members from last year. This kind of feels like 2002 [during Carroll's first national championship run].
"We have a saying that we live by of `excellence is maintained by performance, not reputation.' Our guys know that we have to work hard towards winning the national championship and nothing is going to be handed to us."
St. Xavier (13-1) heads to the Peach State for its first crack at the trophy. Head coach Mike Feminis has turned around a program that won just eight games during its first six years of football (1993-98). Since then, the Cougars have advanced to the playoffs seven times, including a current three-year run to the Football Championship Series (FCS) Semifinals. Since 2001, St. Xavier has been the winningest football program in the state of Illinois with a record of 105-31 and a .772 win percentage.
"Playing for a national title means everything to us," said Feminis. "Carroll is a program that we have tried to emulate. I have so much respect for how they do things. For us to compete against them in our first national championship is an honor. I am proud of the fact that we have done it with kids mostly in our back yard. We have been close so many times, but we have been able to do it this year and play for the ultimate goal."
These clubs have met before in the postseason, with the last coming in the Semifinals of the 2010 NAIA FCS. Carroll eliminated the Cougars, 27-5, in Helena, Mont. St. Xavier won the first matchup in the playoffs with a 14-7 road triumph in the 2006 Quarterfinals.
The keys to the game may be how the top-five nationally ranked St. Xavier offense will fare against the Carroll defense, which ranks in the top 10 in both scoring and total defense. The Cougars, engineered by All-Mid-States Football Association Mideast Division First Team selection Jimmy Coy, are just the third team ever in college football history first in the NAIA to score 600 points in three-consecutive seasons. The other teams are NCAA Division III member Mount Union (Ohio) from 2005 - 09 and NCAA Division I member Harvard (Mass.) from 1886 - 88. The 612 points scored this campaign for an average of 45.6 per game is tops in the NAIA. St. Xavier has scored at least 50 points in half of its games this year (seven) and gets it done through the air with nearly 335 passing yards per game.
Some football experts claim that defense wins national championships. That could be the case for why Carroll has been so successful. Since 2005 when the Fighting Saints topped the country in total defense, they have ranked in the top-15 nationally five of the last six seasons. This year is no different as the unit yields around 260 yards per game, which is eighth lowest. Five opponents this season have failed to reach 10 points, including Semifinal victim Georgetown (Ky.). The Tigers entered the game averaging over 30 points and Carroll limited them to a field goal in the 35-3 victory.
Carroll running back Chance Demarais and St. Xavier middle linebacker Michael Prosser are two key players to watch. Both stars were named to the American Football Coaches' Association All-America Team that was announced on Wednesday. Demarais becomes the seventh Fighting Saint to be honored in as many years.
Demarais has put up a NAIA-best 1,748 rushing yards for a 134.5 average per game. The native of Malta, Mont., has reached the 100-yard mark in 10 games, including a season-high 234-yard effort against Montana Western on Sept. 17. He will go against a Cougar rush defense ranked eighth in the NAIA (93.5 ypg).
Prosser has been a disrupter all year long with a team-best 10.0 sacks. He set the Cougar career sacks record with 26.0 and leads the club in solo tackles (44), total tackles (90) and tackles-for-loss (21.5). He is a big reason that St. Xavier is ranked 10th in the NAIA in total defense (268.0).
Carroll is making its 20th all-time trip to the FCS and brings a 39-13 playoff mark. Both of those figures are on the top of the NAIA postseason lists. St. Xavier holds a 10-6 FCS record and is playing in its seventh playoff.
NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME NOTES
• This is the fourth-straight year that Rome, Ga., has served as host and the 45th different site for the National Championship. Saturday marks the second-consecutive 4:30 p.m. EST kickoff to showcase the lights and artificial turf installed prior to 2010.
• The average attendance in the last three years in Rome has been 5,833 fans. The highest attendance of 6,500 occurred in the 2008 event, hosted by Rome.
• In the last five years, the national championship has not been decided until the final moments. The average margin of victory during that span was 6.8 points, including a three-point win for Carroll last season. In the five-year span prior (2001-05), the average margin of victory was 15.0 points.
• There has been just one national championship shutout since 1987 when Northwestern Oklahoma State blanked Georgetown (Ky.), 20-0, back in 2000.
• Carroll brings a 6-1 all-time National Championship record into Saturday's event, with the only loss in 2008. Saint Xavier is appearing in its first-ever title game.
• Defending national champion Carroll holds six NAIA National Championships, which ties former NAIA member Westminster (Pa.) for the second-most all-time. The seventh title would match Texas A&I for the most in NAIA history. Carroll is the only team that has won at least three-straight titles, winning four in-a-row from 2002-05.
• The eight national title game appearances for Carroll will tie Texas A&I for the second-most amount of any NAIA team. Westminster advanced to nine trophy contests.
• All eight of Carroll's championship game appearances have come since 2002. In a 10-year span, that amount of National Championship game appearances is the most in NAIA history. Two teams made the trophy game six times during a 10-year stint, Texas A&I (1968-77) and Sioux Falls (S.D.) (2001-10).
• In its seven previous National Championship games, Carroll has averaged 20.7 points per game and allowed 13.9 points per game.
• St. Xavier is searching to become the first program since Azusa Pacific (Calif.) in 1998 to win a title in its first appearance in the National Championship.
• Since the Rawlings-NAIA Player of the Year award was handed out beginning in 1997, the winner of the award has not translated into team success. In that span, the Player of the Year has played on a team that is 6-5 in the National Championship. In 2010, Sioux Falls wide receiver and Player of the Year Jon Ryan and the Cougars fell to Carroll, 10-7. The 2011 Player of the Year will be announced at the Banquet of Champions on Friday.
• A win by St. Xavier on Saturday would mean that a team other than Carroll or Sioux Falls will be the national champion for the first time since 2001.
• Members of the Mid-States Football Association (MSFA), St. Xavier is the first team out of the MSFA to play for the title since Saint Francis (Ind.) appeared in 2006. The Cougars are looking to win the MSFA's first National Championship since former NAIA school Findlay (Ohio) did so in 1997.
• With the NAIA's top-ranked offense, St. Xavier has scored 642 total points this season. That mark ranks seventh all-time on the NAIA single-season charts. The 2010 St. Xavier squad put up 670 points.
• The No. 2-ranked team entering the National Championship stands with a 5-2 mark since 2000. The No. 5 ranked clubs are 0-1. St. Xavier is the lowest seed to reach the title game since No. 9 Carroll upset No. 2 Saint Francis (Ind.), 15-13, in 2004.
• With the top-ranked team, Marian (Ind.), suffering a Semifinal loss on Dec. 3 to St. Xavier, the national championship will be contested between the No. 2 and 5-ranked teams. The No. 1 team is not playing in the title game for the first time since 2004.
• With both teams entering Saturday with one loss, it snaps a six-year streak of both of the National Championship qualifiers being undefeated.
• The lower-ranked team has won four of the last five national championships, including second-ranked Carroll in the 2010 event.
• Carroll holds the longest active streak of postseason appearances with a dozen, followed by Morningside (Iowa) (8) and Mid-America Nazarene (Kan.) (5).
• After its 35-3 Semifinal victory over Georgetown (Ky.), Carroll earned its 39th postseason win and currently holds the most in NAIA playoff history. In 20 all-time playoff trips, Carroll is 39-13.
• Two teams finished the regular season with an undefeated record, Georgetown and Marian. That is the fewest since 2002.
• There are three teams from 2010 that are playoff regulars that did not earn a trip this year: Cumberlands (Ky.) (played in last four-straight playoffs), Dickinson State (N.D.) (played in 15 overall playoffs) and Northwestern Oklahoma State (played in 12 overall playoffs).
Some research compiled by Tex Noel, 1st-N-Goal College Football StatResearch; some information courtesy of Saint Xavier and Carroll Sports Information Department.