Villanova's football team had won three consecutive games, all against opponents ranked in the top three at the time, each on the road.

How many teams have ever done that?

But it ended Friday night at No. 1 Eastern Washington, 41-31. So the Wildcats (9-5) will not repeat as FCS national champion. Six turnovers, the most they'd committed in 60 minutes since 2004, can have that kind of impact.

It actually said a lot that they somehow only trailed by three points with 7 minutes to go.

Nonetheless, it will be the Eagles (12-2) who meet Delaware (12-2) for the title on Jan. 7 in Frisco, Texas. The Blue Hens, who beat Georgia Southern, 27-10, at home Saturday afternoon, are trying to become the third consecutive Colonial Athletic Association school to lift the trophy. They won it in 2003, and finished runnerup in '07.

And now, 'Nova coach Andy Talley must bid farewell to a group that also went to the national quarterfinals 2 years ago.

They became the first Wildcat team to get to the playoffs three straight times, the first to win it all and the first to win on the road in the postseason.

If the university votes in April to move up a level and and join the Big East, who knows what impact this recent run might have had on the decision.

"Oh, man, we're going to be a rookie outfit next year," said Talley, who has an impressive list of commitments. "It's going to be a completely different experience. These guys just understood the way we did things. And it showed. The new players will have to learn . . .

"They're leaving quite a legacy. They've played at the very highest level. I think we captured a lot of the imagination of the country last year, with the way we played. I'm sure that's one of the biggest reasons why the Big East is interested. They've provided the kind of exposure for them to consider us. They've lifted the bar, for sure. A lot of these kids could play at I-A. There's some great stuff already in place here. They'll be a celebrated team, one that will always be talked about.

"They wanted a national championship, and nothing less. A lot of teams would have been happy to get to the semifinals. Especially when you were looking at a 6-5 season not too long ago. But this group, and everyone else [surrounding the program], was thinking much bigger. That tells you a lot about your program, and the way you approach all this."

If the Wildcats do move up, they still will play at the FCS level next season. Then they would go through a 2-year transitionary period before becoming a full-time member of a BCS conference in 2014.

But that's the possible future. The present still hurts.

"You have to accept the fact that it's the last time these seniors are ever going to play with each other," Talley said. "You want to dwell on the friendships you have, the relationships, the memories. I had a college roommate out there with me. Here we are, 40 years later. That's what it's all about, really. That's what stays with you, throughout your life. You're going to have disappointments. You have to remember back to moments like this. That's what helps get you through.

"Their accomplishments are monumental. You don't want that to be lost, in the haze of not getting back to the national championship. They were football players, in the best sense of what that means. But even more important is the way they carried themselves as people. That never goes away . . .

"When we got back, I was sort of feeling a little bit sorry for myself. I called Matt [Szczur]. He and [John] Dempsey were having a bite to eat. They were looking forward to the holidays. Wow. That made me feel better. We're always looking for why. But life goes on."