“Schor drops back, discards a defender and fires a bomb to Stapleton!” ESPN’s Chris Fowler shouts. “He reaches up, and it’s caught! JMU wins! The Dukes have stunned the Crimson Tide!”
This isn’t an actual call from ESPN’s top college football play-by-play announcer, it’s just my recurring daydream. As a JMU student and soon to be (hopefully, my second semester schedule is tough) alumnus, I’d be lying if I said I don’t at least picture my beloved Dukes playing at the FBS level. I do all the time. And not in Conference USA or the Sun Belt, but the American Athletic Conference. Give me the Dukes against UCF, South Florida, Memphis and SMU on a regular basis. Give me the Dukes earning postseason games against the likes of Florida State and Auburn or maybe even Alabama. Yes, I want ‘Bama.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not an FBS at all costs lunatic. Winning FCS National Championships over North Dakota State (fingers crossed) is far superior to playing in Conference USA and earning a spot in the “Who Gives A Shit Bowl” sponsored by Charmin. With that being said, UCF just beat Auburn in a New Year’s Six Bowl game on national television. The next game on ESPN after the Golden Knights won? That’d be the Rose Bowl, the first installment of this year’s College Football Playoff. As much as beating the Bison would mean to JMU, a win over Auburn is significantly more meaningful to a program. How wild would it be for JMU to 1) earn a bowl berth against an SEC power and 2) beat them on ESPN? It’d be wild.
I know you’re probably thinking, “Bennett, I liked you more when you made jokes about streamers. The Dukes aren’t going to the FBS so just drop it and enjoy Saturday.” That’s fair, but at the end of the day, I’m a fan. I love my school. JMU fans all love JMU, and want the best for the university. So why can’t we dream big?
I’d rather dream of winning the College Football Playoff against Alabama than dream about winning an FCS title against a team from Fargo. No disrespect to the Bison. They dominate FBS teams and they’d be great at the FBS level, too. But nobody dreams of going on vacation to Salt Lake City. Nobody dreams of dating a 7. Nobody dreams of eating Food Lion brand ice cream. Take me to the Caribbean to share a pint of Ben and Jerry’s with Margot Robbie. There’s nothing wrong with Salt Lake City and there’s nothing wrong with store brand ice cream, but when push comes to shove, we all want the best. And the best teams in college football play in the FBS.
Again, the FCS is awesome. The talent drop off between the FCS and Group of 5 schools is practically non-existent. But if JMU fans are being completely honest, watching UCF beat Auburn makes it hard not to be just a little bit envious of the Golden Knights. I know I am. I’m envious because there are so many striking similarities between JMU and UCF.
Let’s start with the quarterbacks. UCF’s McKenzie Milton is just a sophomore, while JMU’s Bryan Schor will wear a cap and gown in May, but the two share similar traits. Both have playmaking ability from outside the pocket, as Milton rushed for eight touchdowns this season and Schor has seven with one game to play. Outside of that, watching them live or on TV shows they’re gifted at keeping plays alive and making throws downfield after scrambling. Their legs certainly help them, but both players have plenty of ability just in their right arms. Milton surpassed 4,000 yards passing against Auburn and Schor inched past 3,000 (for the second consecutive season) against South Dakota State. They’re gunslingers with above average speed, a solid arm and a knack for winning games.
Additionally, each player had a unique journey to get to this point. Schor originally committed to Miami University in Ohio before the RedHawks rescinded his scholarship. (I’m sure they regret that decision daily.) Schor then went to Lackawanna College before making his way to JMU. Milton on the other hand, hails from Hawaii. He was originally slated to stay in Hawaii until Scott Frost took the UCF job and Milton jumped ship. He was awed by Frost’s work with Marcus Mariota, a fellow Hawaiian, at Oregon. Milton and Schor didn’t have “normal” journeys to lesser known football programs, but both players put their respective team on the map.
Let’s switch gears to the coaches. Frost is on his way out at UCF to lead Nebraska next season, but we’ll focus mostly what he did in his two seasons in Orlando. The first-time head coach took a team that went 0-12 in 2015 to a bowl game in his first season. The Golden Knights lost and finished the season 6-7, but they had a six-win improvement in just one year. Fast forward to this season. With Milton coming into his second season under Frost, the Golden Knights were primed for another step forward. Only they didn’t step, they leaped. They went 13-0. UCF beat Memphis (twice), Maryland, South Florida and Auburn en route to a perfect season just two years removed from a winless season.
Frost came to UCF as an offensive guru having worked with Mariota as the offensive coordinator at Oregon. So how successful was his turnaround with the UCF offense? In 2015, the Golden Knights ranked 125th out of 127 FBS teams in points per game with 13.7. In 2016, they averaged 28.8 points per game, which ranked 66th nationally. This season, UCF exploded. They averaged a whopping 48.2 points per game to LEAD THE COUNTRY. Frost is an offensive genius, and he turned UCF from arguably the nation’s worst offense to the nation’s best in two years.
Back to JMU. When Mike Houston arrived on campus, the Dukes weren’t in a dire situation. They had come off back-to-back nine-win seasons, but fans craved playoff success. They wanted to win postseason games in Bridgeforth Stadium and have a defense capable of supporting its flawless offense. What the Dukes got, however, was nothing short of remarkable.
In Houston’s first season as coach, JMU went 14-1 en route to a national championship. The defense came up huge in wins over Villanova, Sam Houston State and North Dakota State. The team won the school’s first national title since 2004. The Dukes were back. This season, the Dukes are a perfect 14-0 under Houston and await the Bison in the national title on Saturday. After 18 wins in two seasons under Withers, JMU aims for No. 29 under Houston this weekend. The Dukes haven’t lost a CAA game, or even an FCS game, under their new head coach. He’s been everything they asked for and more.
So how did Houston do it? With defense. He arrived at JMU as a defensive-minded coach and his improvements are quite similar to what Frost did with UCF’s offense. In 2015, JMU ranked 77th out of 123 FCS teams in points allowed per game by yielding 28.7 per contest. In 2016, the Dukes moved to 17th nationally, allowing 21.2 points per game. This season, JMU leads the country by limiting opponents to 10.7 points per game. The turnaround isn’t as drastic as UCF’s, but for JMU fans, the defensive turnaround is miraculous.
Both coaches know how to turn teams into proven winners. And off the field, they’re high-quality people. Frost showed his character by remaining with the Golden Knights through their bowl game against Auburn, flying back and forth from Florida to Nebraska to start his new job, while making sure he finished things off the right way with his group in Orlando. Houston turned down FBS offers and signed a 10-year contract extension because he appreciates JMU and his family loves the Harrisonburg community. He strives to turn players into not just better athletes, but better men. I’m not saying Scott Frost and Mike Houston are the same person, but they do have similar qualities. For a JMU fan watching UCF-Auburn, it’s hard not to see the Dukes in the Golden Knights.
So what’s the point? What’s the point of me telling you I dream about JMU being a purple and gold version of UCF and that I see similarities across the board between the two programs? Well, I think JMU could turn my dream of playing for an FBS National Championship against a team like Alabama into a reality. Hang with me here, because I’m sure you think I’m insane. Just hear me out.
If the Dukes joined the AAC (yes, I know they need an invite), they’d fit in immediately. The football program won more games (1) against AAC schools than UCF (0) did in 2015. JMU is 2-0 in its last two games against AAC opponents and the Dukes would be gaining 22 additional scholarships. No, they wouldn’t immediately be ready to compete with an Auburn, but neither was UCF two years ago. They’d hold their own against the middle of the pack AAC teams on the gridiron right away. While JMU’s basketball programs might also struggle initially, the new arena is on its way, and the women’s team is 112-15 against CAA teams since the 2010-11 season. It’s time for a step up in competition. JMU volleyball has made the NCAA tournament in consecutive seasons, and JMU softball has made five straight trips to the NCAA tournament. JMU baseball has shown improvement under head coach Marlin Ikenberry, and the Dukes knocked off Coastal Carolina last season when the Chanticleers were defending national champs. Heck, even the athletics communications department is up there with some of the best in the country. Have you seen the hype videos this season? Amazing. Yes, there’d be a learning curve for many of JMU’s programs, but it wouldn’t be drastic.
The AAC brands itself as part of the “Power 6” because it feels its athletic programs and football teams belong in the conversation for FBS championships. Look at the benefit for a conference dying to be included with the big boys. Adding JMU means gaining a team that’s 28-1 under its new head coach and hungry for more. The Dukes rank 43rd in the latest Sagarin ratings, ahead of teams like Florida, Texas A&M, California, North Carolina and even Nebraska. Sitting two spots ahead of the Dukes at No. 41 is South Florida, which gave UCF all it could handle in a 49-42 loss in the last regular season game of the season. Imagine what the Dukes could be with 22 more scholarships. It’s simple, adding JMU makes the AAC a better football conference. Of course, plenty of other factors (being a good geographic fit, having the funding to compete at the higher level, willingness to leave the CAA, etc.) all factor into the decision to leave and receive an invite in the first place, but the Dukes could easily hold their own on the field.
“NCAA permitted streamers fly as nobody gets hurt and everyone celebrates safely because they’re literally just pieces of paper!” Fowler shrieks as JMU fans rejoice after beating Nick Saban and Alabama.
None of this is real, and at the end of the day I’m just a dreamer. But for a program on the rise with a boatload of crazed fans, I know I’m not the only one.