After rubbing the blood out of my eyes from watching the FCS opener between NC A&T and Jacksonville State, I’m ready to watch JMU football take the field. Luckily, we’re less than a week away from that summer fantasy becoming a fall reality. With less than a week left until the season starts, I’m going to share my 2018 game-by-game predictions before it’s too late.
When all of these predictions come true, I’ll gladly announce my new role as JMU’s beat writer for The Athletic. Maybe I’ll just announce I’m joining The Athletic regardless. With the amount of people joining the popular media entity, would anyone really say anything if I just pulled a George Costanza and pretended to work there?
OK, back to reality.
Week 1 at N.C. State
What JMU fans should expect: A hard-fought loss.
Welcome to 2018, JMU. To start the calendar year, you get to play North Dakota State in Frisco, and to open the 2018 season you get N.C. State on the road. For the first time in Houston’s tenure, a two-game losing streak is actually expected.
The expected loss makes sense, as the Wolfpack return one of the country’s best quarterbacks in Ryan Finley, as well as three of the team’s top four receivers. If you’ve read anything about N.C. State, you’ve probably read a variation of the previous sentence a dozen times. The Wolfpack have potential to be elite offensively this season. Defensively, there are more questions.
N.C. State doesn’t lack talent on defense, but it’s replacing its entire defensive line, including the loss of Bradley Chubb, one of the best NFL prospects in the 2018 NFL Draft. Even with Chubb, the Wolfpack left something to be desired on defense. With a relatively new starting front seven, JMU has a realistic shot at establishing the run. Despite the new faces, this will likely be one of the best defenses JMU faces all season, purely based on talent, athleticism and size.
JMU fans should be concerned about the N.C. State wide receivers. Kelvin Harmon is a talented wide receiver on the outside, but Jakobi Myers might be the Wolfpack’s scariest weapon. After watching film on Finley, it’s clear he trusts Myers in crucial situations. JMU needs to stop Myers on third down to have a chance.
While JMU fans shouldn’t expect a win, I actually think the Dukes pull the upset. Again, there’s no reason for JMU fans to expect this. N.C. State is better on paper, has more depth and the potential to win 10 games this year.
But I like JMU’s chances of scoring 21-35 points against the Wolfpack, and I expect the Dukes’ secondary to hold its own against a great receiving corps. After watching Marshall play tight press coverage against Finley last season, and take a 20-10 first-half lead, I truly believe JMU can hang in this game.
The Dukes have 22 fewer scholarships, a smaller defensive line and a new starting quarterback, but I love the talent at running back, offensive line and in the secondary. At the very least, fans should root for a competitive game with the outcome undecided at halftime. At best, JMU shocks the college football world and announces its presence to the country once again.
Final: JMU 31, N.C. State 27
Week 2 at Norfolk State
What JMU fans should expect: A blowout victory.
While Norfolk State’s on-field product isn’t anything that should concern JMU fans, playing at the Spartans’ stadium should be fun. Norfolk State’s venue can fit 30,000 people, and should draw a large crowd for the Spartans’ best opponent of the season.
Playing consecutive away games to start the season ensures the Dukes are ready to head out of town during CAA play. While the N.C. State game serves as a better test, this game gives JMU an expected notch in the win column, which is valuable should the Dukes fall to the Wolfpack.
JMU beat Norfolk State 75-14 last season, and another blowout looks likely.
Final: JMU 63, Norfolk State 7
Week 3 vs. Robert Morris
What JMU fans should expect: A sky filled with streamers
Sadly, JMU fans have to wait until Sept. 15 for the Dukes to play in Bridgeforth Stadium. On the bright side, JMU should throttle Robert Morris. The Colonials lost 56-0 to North Dakota State and 30-0 to Youngstown State last season. They also finished the year 2-9 after losing eight consecutive games. This won’t be Mike Houston’s first home loss.
Final: JMU 42, Robert Morris 10
Week 4 vs. William & Mary
What JMU fans should expect: A show from the secondary
William & Mary named Shon Mitchell the starting quarterback for Jimmye Laycock’s last season. Unfortunately, the talented Mitchell still has a lot to prove and the young quarterback will struggle with an early-season matchup against the CAA’s top secondary. Expect Jimmy Moreland and Rashad Robinson to create havoc against a team that tossed four interceptions when it played the Dukes a season ago.
Final: JMU 38, William & Mary 10
Week 5 at Richmond
What JMU fans should expect: A battle
Now we start to get into JMU’s season. The Dukes should pick up wins in weeks 2-4, and nobody will fault them if they lose the season opener. But once this game hits, the Dukes are going to need to beat quality opponents if they want to win the CAA and earn a playoff bye for the fourth consecutive season.
JMU’s secondary faces a tough test against Kevin Johnson and a potent passing attack. Playing at Richmond in the second rivalry game in two weeks makes this a tricky game for the Dukes. I expect Cardon Johnson, Marcus Marshall and Trai Sharp to be the difference in a surprisingly close game.
Final: JMU 31, Richmond 23
Week 6 vs. Elon
What JMU fans should expect: A full house, and a dominant victory
I’m not sold on Davis Cheek and Elon just yet. The Phoenix return a lot of talent, but they barely squeaked out most of their victories last season, and fell 31-3 to JMU at home in the final week of the regular season. I like the program’s trajectory, but a packed house on Family Weekend only makes this matchup tougher for Elon. JMU wins big.
Final: JMU 42, Elon 17
Week 7 at Villanova
What JMU fans should expect: A very difficult test against a top-end CAA defense
This game could play a much larger role in the CAA title picture than most expect. Villanova’s defense is legitimate and it returns quarterback Zach Bednarczyk. It’s a 1 p.m. game on the road against a CAA contender in the middle of October after facing two other CAA contenders the previous two weeks. Nothing about this game is easy, but Houston builds his team to win these sort of games. Expect a steady dose of senior running backs in an “ugly” win.
Final: JMU 21, Villanova 13
Week 8 vs. Stony Brook
What JMU fans should expect: A happy Homecoming
Joe Carbone came to Harrisonburg feeling generous in 2017. He politely gift-wrapped five interceptions and tossed them to the Dukes. Carbone’s playoff kindness was then upstaged by South Dakota State, which came to Harrisonburg rocking a red burlap sack filled with 10 gifts of its own.
While he had a better season last year, Carbone leaves Stony Brook wanting a little more at quarterback. He struggled mightily against JMU’s elite secondary and manages games rather than picking apart opposing defenses. It’s hard to compete at JMU’s level without either a quarterback capable of leading a team down the field or one of the nation’s five best defenses. Stony Brook doesn’t have either.
With a bye week to prepare, JMU hammers the Seawolves.
Final: JMU 45, Stony Brook 14
Week 9 at New Hampshire
What JMU fans should expect: Cold weather and offensive fireworks
Circle this game on your calendar. New Hampshire’s offense features quarterback Trevor Knight and wide receiver Neil O’Connor. If the Wildcats ride that combo, they’re going to pick up a lot of victories during the course of the season and make their 15th consecutive playoff appearance.
On the bright side for JMU, the Dukes’ secondary is a team strength. Unfortunately, a November trip all the way up to New Hampshire against a top-10 team makes for a difficult win. Expect a tight game with incredible athleticism on both sides.
I think New Hampshire can win this game, but I think the team talent gap is massive between the top two teams in the country (North Dakota State and JMU) and everybody else. The Wildcats can win, but I can’t see myself picking against North Dakota State or JMU at this point.
Final: JMU 34, New Hampshire 24
Week 10 vs. Rhode Island
What JMU fans should expect: A perfect regular season home record
The Rams looked much more competitive last season, but will struggle to beat JMU in Harrisonburg. In fact, I think they’ll have a tough time staying within two scores.
Final: JMU 52, Rhode Island 17
Week 11 at Towson
What JMU fans should expect: A blowout heading into the playoffs.
Rejoice, D.C. Dukes! JMU plays in the Maryland area against one of the few CAA teams expected to struggle this season. The Dukes should end the year with a pair of easy wins.
Final: JMU 49, Towson 13
Overall 11-0, 8-0 CAA
Don’t be shocked to see JMU go 10-1, 9-2 or even 8-3. The Dukes face a tough road schedule and will be tested by Richmond, Villanova, New Hampshire and N.C. State. Regardless of the schedule, JMU’s roster is in a class of its own compared to CAA foes. If JMU does indeed start the year with a massive upset, the season has a chance to be historic. If it starts with a loss, the Dukes might post a third 14-1 season under Houston.