Three way-too-early predictions for JMU football’s 2018 season

After two remarkable seasons under head coach Mike Houston, all eyes will be on JMU football Saturday as the Dukes take the field for their spring game. Saturday isn’t the same as a game day in the fall, but it’ll do for now.

If there’s one thing we know about spring games, it’s that the lighthearted scrimmage is a PERFECT indicator of EXACTLY how the team will perform five months from now. With this being said, I’m going to make three predictions for the season prior to the game since we’ll definitively know the answers by Saturday night.

In all seriousness, the spring game isn’t all that bad. It’s fun. It’s fun for the players to play in front of fans, and it’s fun for the fans to catch a JMU football game on a Saturday in the spring. For a football crazed fan base, Saturday is a big day. Before I get into my three predictions, I’ll give a quick shoutout to the less heralded sports. If you haven’t paid attention to JMU softball, lacrosse and women’s tennis, you should. All three teams have very real chances of taking home CAA titles and making a mark in the NCAA Tournament. I’ll draft up a post on those teams over the next week, but before then let’s get into my three predictions for the 2018 JMU football season.

  1. Cole Johnson wins the starting QB gig AND throws more TD passes than Bryan Schor did in 2017. 

Schor tossed 26 touchdowns in 15 games last season, which is good for only 1.73 TD passes per game. I think JMU’s offense puts up significantly more points per game this season, the Dukes averaged just over 34 last season, and Johnson plays a key role in what I expect to be the nation’s most explosive offense.

While he’s not guaranteed the starting role, his athleticism, experience in the system and strong arm make him the frontrunner. It’s currently a three-horse race between Johnson, Ben DiNucci and Gage Maloney. I don’t see Maloney winning the gig despite his potential, and DiNucci has a long way to go to reach Johnson’s understanding of the playbook.

Once Johnson wins the job, I see him clicking with players like Clayton Cheatham, Riley Stapleton and David Eldridge. With such talented receivers, a loaded running back group and a young, yet experienced offensive line, I see Johnson easily averaging two touchdown passes per game. I’m banking on the Dukes making a deep postseason run (we’ll get to that shortly) to give Johnson plenty of games to surpass Schor’s 2017-18 total for TD passes.

2. JMU beats N.C. State in the season opener 

Admittedly, I feel less confident in this one. I think N.C. State has a chance to be one of the best teams the ACC has to offer, but FCS teams like JMU and North Dakota State should be viewed like ranked FBS squads. While they don’t have nearly the scholarships the Wolfpack have, the Dukes are 28-2 under Houston with losses to NDSU and North Carolina. The rising third-year head coach clearly has an understanding of how to run a program and how to win big games. He knocked off South Carolina with the Citadel and East Carolina last season with JMU. In short, it shouldn’t be a shock to anyone if JMU wins. The Dukes are capable.

N.C. State boasts a sixth-year starting QB with NFL potential in Ryan Finley. The Wolfpack is really good, and I expect them to put together one of the better seasons in program history. I’m not betting against N.C. State, but rather for the Dukes.

Let’s take a quick peek at the highlights of JMU’s roster.

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Defensively, Jimmy Moreland and Rashad Robinson give the Dukes superb corners. Darrious and Ron’Dell Carter provide dominant defensive linemen. Bryce Maginley and Dimitri Holloway anchor a solid linebacker unit and give the Dukes reliable upperclassmen in important positions. There are certainly question marks, and I expect N.C. State to score on the Dukes, but JMU has the pieces to limit explosive offenses and to find just enough ways to limit a guy like Finley to let its offense take care of business. An added plus is that the upperclassmen have now spent three years in Bob Trott’s scheme and have a sense of clarity on how to execute the team’s most successful defensive system in years.

The offense is where I think JMU has enough to beat the Wolfpack. The Dukes don’t have a single position on offense where they’re weak or lack depth. They’re 3-4 deep at tight end for crying out loud. If the Dukes have the offensive explosiveness they had two years ago, they can score upwards of 30 points against N.C. State. A few horrendous defensive mistakes in the passing game kept JMU from finishing the job against UNC in 2016, but with an improved defense and an equally explosive offense, I think the Dukes shock the college football world and start 2018 with a bang.

3. JMU wins the 2018-19 FCS National Championship

There are 101 things that’ll factor into this prediction. Health, quarterback play and lucky breaks all play huge roles in the outcomes of games and the ending of seasons. JMU could’ve easily lost to Weber State last season, but found itself in the national championship after a miracle win and a subsequent beatdown of South Dakota State. Take this prediction for what it is — a way-to-early prediction in April. With that said, to me it’s NDSU, JMU and everyone else.

Based on the roster, the coaching staff and the potential to dominate the CAA, I love JMU’s chances of earning home playoff games. The Dukes have yet to lose a home game under Houston and won a majority of those games (14 of 17) in double-digit fashion. With a “manageable” road to Frisco, I really like the Dukes’ chances of making it to a third consecutive title game. Regardless of opponent, I think JMU and Houston finish the deal and win a second title in three seasons because of the offense. Cole Johnson becomes a superstar, the running game exceeds expectations and Riley Stapleton makes a case as the most dominant wide receiver in the country as the Dukes hoist the trophy once again.

Correction (7/11): An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Nyheim Hines was still on NCSU’s roster. 

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