Movin’ On Up: Could JMU Football Compete at the FBS Level?

What would happen if JMU switched conferences? 

A question that feels as old as time — cut me some slack, I was born in ’95 so time isn’t that old for me — this thought constantly pops into the minds of JMU fans and rarely comes with any clarity. The athletic department took some heat a few years ago for seemingly always saying they were “monitoring the situation,” but that bet appears to have paid off. Most fans tend to agree winning CAA titles is better than competing in Conference USA.

Not joining the Sun Belt or C-USA is an easy argument, but what if the Dukes entered the American Athletic Conference? You have to think fans would prefer that. Heck, what if the Dukes joined the ACC?! While unlikely, the rivalries with in-state foes Virginia and Virginia Tech make sense. Regional battles with N.C. State and North Carolina do as well. Of course, the on-field football product isn’t all JMU or the ACC would look at in this situation, and the jump to a Power 5 isn’t expected AT ALL, but it’s interesting to consider.

I don’t have any inside knowledge of the Dukes preparing to jump out of the CAA ship, but with rumblings about JMU’s future always coming up as football season inches closer, this feels like a perfect time to fantasize.

Here’s how this’ll work. I’m going to remove a team from a conference and put JMU in its place. I’m selecting the teams based on last year’s final Sagarin rating. I’m looking for a team in “JMU’s new conference” with the rating closest to JMU’s final 2017 ranking of No. 44. After that, I’m going through the 2018 regular season game-by-game using the replaced team’s schedule.

Sagarin1

Ex: To determine how JMU would perform in the SEC, I’d find the closest SEC team, which happens to be Texas A&M at No. 43. Then, I “remove” the Aggies from the SEC and put JMU in their place. I then analyze how the Dukes would fare playing Texas A&M’s 2018 schedule. Simple enough.

It’s not a perfect system, but a fun hypothetical nonetheless.

I’m using last year’s numbers because I think the 2018 early rankings are flawed. Northern Iowa (No. 78) ranks ahead of JMU (No. 80), and that’s wild. If needed, I’ll factor in this year’s numbers from time to time. The rationale behind removing the team closest to JMU’s ranking is to preserve the balance of power within the conference.

Sagarin2

Here’s a more detailed example for clarification: What would happen if JMU moved to the Missouri Valley Football Conference? 

The two closest teams to JMU in the MVFC based on the final 2017 Sagarin rating are North and South Dakota State. NDSU sits at No. 31 and SDSU ranked 63rd. The difference between JMU and NDSU is smaller, so I’d go game-by-game through the Bison’s schedule with JMU taking their place. I won’t go through this example, as I’ll focus this piece on FBS conferences.

Make sense? Great, let’s get this show on the road.

What would happen if JMU moved to Conference USA?

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Stop your groaning, it’s a hypothetical.

OK, the Dukes are closest to reigning C-USA champion Florida Atlantic (No. 47). With a swift move, we replace Lane Kiffin and the Owls with Mike Houston and the Dukes.

Week 1 at Oklahoma 

Welcome to the big leagues, JMU. Things in the FBS era begin with a loss to baseball star Kyler Murray and the Sooners. I won’t elaborate too much further, beating Oklahoma is unlikely.

Result: LOSS

Record: 0-1

Week 2 vs. Air Force

Air Force limped to a 5-7 record in 2017 and Houston will have his defense prepared for a triple option attack. JMU picks up the win by 10-20 points.

Result: WIN

Record: 1-1

Week 3 vs. Bethune Cookman

JMU wins. Next.

Record: 2-1

Week 4 at UCF

While C-USA might not be a step up from the CAA, taking Florida Atlantic’s nonconference schedule is an upgrade this season. After an opening week bout with Oklahoma, the Dukes square off with last season’s “national champs.”

JMU running back Jawon Hamilton would get a crack at his former squad, but the Dukes’ defense would have their hands full slowing down UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton. JMU hangs tough, but falls short in the second half.

Result: LOSS

Record: 2-2 

Week 5 at Middle Tennessee State

Middle Tennessee State is a middle of the road C-USA team. The Blue Raiders finished the 2017 season 7-6 with a 4-4 conference record. With that being said, they were 5-2 in home games or games at a neutral site. MTSU puts up a great fight, but JMU starts 1-0 in conference play.

Result: WIN

Record: 3-2 (1-0)

Week 6 vs. Old Dominion

An in-state battle between JMU and ODU results in the Dukes proving that it’s them and Virginia Tech when it comes to the Commonwealth’s top team.

Result: WIN

Record: 4-2 (2-0)

Week 7 Bye

Week 8 at Marshall

Marshall could pull the upset. I expect a good 2018 campaign out of the Thundering Herd and could see JMU letting one game slip on the road. Despite playing away from home against a quality opponent, Mike Houston’s Dukes are fantastic coming off bye weeks. The Dukes take advantage of the extra rest and pull out a 10-point win.

Result: WIN

Record: 5-2 (3-0)

Week 9 vs. Louisiana Tech

If you haven’t caught on by this point, if JMU enters the C-USA in Florida Atlantic’s place, it would win a lot of games. With a team as good, or better, than FAU, the Dukes enter the conference as the clear favorite. I’d be stunned to see the Dukes suffer a home loss in this conference.

Result: WIN, JMU becomes bowl eligible

Record: 6-2 (4-0)

Week 10 at Florida International

The Owls have a well-respected coach in Butch Davis, but they’re a couple years away from asserting themselves as a consistent threat to contend in the conference.

Result: WIN

Record: 7-2 (5-0)

Week 11 vs. Western Kentucky

The Hilltoppers boast a solid program, but I’m not picking the Dukes to lose at home, especially not to a team that finished last season with a losing record.

Result: WIN

Record: 8-2 (6-0)

Week 12 at North Texas

Aside from Florida Atlantic, North Texas ranks the highest of any team in the conference in the final 2017 Sagarin Ratings. Unfortunately for the Mean Green, they rank 83rd. On top of that, they lost 69-31 to Florida Atlantic last season. JMU breaks the 50-point threshold in a blowout.

Result: WIN

Record: 9-2 (7-0)

Week 13 vs. Charlotte

Charlotte went 1-11 last season. The Dukes end the year with an easy win.

Result: WIN

Record: 10-2 (8-0)

Verdict

JMU could win C-USA this season. From what I’ve seen of the CAA, switching to C-USA serves as a step down in competition. JMU runs the conference table and falls in two really difficult nonconference showdowns with top-25 squads. 

What would happen if JMU moved to the American Athletic Conference?

AAC

*JMU fans start salivating*

Settle down, everyone. OK, so JMU’s final 2017 ranking comes closest to South Florida (No. 41). Using magic, we take USF out of the AAC and insert JMU.

Week 1 vs. Elon

You can take the team out of the CAA …

JMU hosts the Phoenix to open the 2018 slate. Much like last season, the Dukes have an answer for Davis Cheek, and pick up a win over an up-and-coming CAA program.

Result: WIN

Record: 1-0 (0-0)

Week 2 vs. Georgia Tech

A win over Elon leads into an exciting nonconference home game. Under Paul Johnson, Georgia Tech has made eight bowl appearances in 10 seasons and always seems to give defenses fits with the triple option. While I think Houston’s background running the triple option helps the Dukes beat Air Force in the C-USA hypothetical, Georgia Tech is a different animal. Being at home helps JMU, but the athletes on Georgia Tech’s roster help the Yellow Jackets squeak out a win.

Result: LOSS

Record: 1-1 (0-0)

Week 3 vs. Illinois (Soldier Field in Chicago)

Taking on two Power 5 teams in the nonconference schedule is a great bonus of joining the AAC. Matchups with Georgia Tech and Illinois give JMU two winnable games against bigger name programs. You have to think facing Illinois and Georgia Tech instead of Norfolk State and Robert Morris would excite JMU faithful.

JMU knocks off Illinois in this game. While the Fighting Illini are in the Big 10, they’re not very good. Lovie Smith is a phenomenally experienced football coach, but he’s not working with a lot quite yet. He lacks an experienced quarterback and is still in the process of implementing his culture. Houston and the Dukes know what they are and get enough big plays from the secondary to win by double digits in an NFL stadium.

Result: WIN

Record: 2-1 (0-0)

Week 4 vs. East Carolina

There’s no reason to believe ECU changed anything over the offseason to become an AAC contender. JMU smoked them in 2017, and the result would be even worse in front of 20,000+ at Bridgeforth.

Result: WIN

Record: 3-1 (1-0)

Week 5 Bye

Week 6 at UMass

UMass is steadily improving, but they’re a bottom dweller in the FBS. They sit at 139th in the Sagarin Ratings this year, even after starting 1-0 with a 63-15 win over Duquesne. Yes, I know it’s Duquesne, but 139th is a special kind of bad for an FBS team. JMU wins and says a quick hello to former Daily News-Record writer Josh Walfish before heading back to Harrisonburg for a week of practice.

Result: WIN

Record: 4-1 (1-0)

Week 7 at Tulsa 

Tulsa finished 2-10 in 2017 and isn’t expected to take a massive jump forward in 2018. The Golden Hurricane has to hope the travel from Massachusetts to Virginia to Oklahoma wears out the Dukes. I don’t think it’s enough. JMU wins.

Result: WIN

Record: 5-1 (2-0)

Week 8 vs. UConn

Wow, South Florida might have a special 2018 season with this schedule. Good lord.

UConn, which I’ll be watching take on UCF tonight in person, has Randy Edsall back at the helm after he spent time leading Maryland and a year on staff with the Detroit Lions. Edsall led UConn for 12 seasons before taking the Maryland gig.

While I love Edsall, and I do believe he’ll get UConn bowl eligible within the next couple of years, the Huskies don’t strike fear into anyone yet. JMU moves to 6-1 with a home win over a rebuilding program.

Result: WIN, JMU becomes bowl eligible

Record: 6-1 (3-0)

Week 9 at Houston

Ed Oliver stands out as the big name when you look at Houston. The athletic defensive tackle may go first in the 2019 NFL Draft and will give JMU’s offensive line fits. In addition to Oliver, Houston has a very promising quarterback in D’Eriq King. JMU falls on the road.

Result: LOSS

Record: 6-2 (3-1) 

Week 10 vs. Tulane

Tulane comes in at No. 76 in the Sagarin Ratings this year, but finished last year in 95th. The program looks to be improving under Willie Fritz, the former head coach of Sam Houston State, and the Green Wave should make a run at bowl eligibility after a 5-7 campaign last year. Despite the steady improvement, JMU takes the win at home in a pivotal late-season victory.

Result: WIN

Record: 7-2 (4-1)

Week 11 at Cincinnati 

This matchup is interesting. Cincinnati enters its second year under Luke Fickell, the former Ohio State defensive coordinator and once head coach. Cincinnati won a lackluster four games in 2017, but should take a jump forward in 2018. The Bearcats, who use a “C” to spell “cats” (take note Sam Houston State), return talent at quarterback, running back and a handful of other positions. In short, Cincinnati has enough to perform well in 2018.

With this game coming so late in the season, I like Cincinnati’s chances of developing nicely and pulling the upset. JMU takes a loss on the road.

If you made it this far into the piece, don’t get outraged. I’ve got the Dukes at 7-3 in the AAC, that’s impressive through 10 games.

Result: LOSS

Record: 7-3 (4-2)

Week 12 at Temple

Temple found itself a quarterback at the end of last season. Frank Nutile led the Owls to a 4-1 finish over the final five games and fired off 12 touchdowns over that span. A relatively inexperienced offensive line worries me if I’m a Temple fan, especially with where JMU’s defensive line should be at Week 12. The pass rush makes Nutile uncomfortable and JMU pulls out a road win.

Result: WIN

Record: 8-3 (5-2)

Week 13 vs. UCF

How cool would this be? A shot at UCF and Heisman candidate McKenzie Milton in the last week of the season, potentially with the 2018 AAC East on the line.

Even without Scott Frost, I expect a special season on offense with Milton and company. Like I said earlier, JMU hangs tight, but Milton makes enough plays to give UCF the victory.

Result: LOSS

Record: 8-4 (5-3)

Verdict

JMU wouldn’t win the AAC in its first year, but the wins would pile up if the Dukes played USF’s 2018 schedule. It’s worth noting that this hypothetical schedule avoids South Florida (obviously), Memphis and Navy. All of these teams expect bowl appearances and strong 2018 campaigns. Regardless, JMU makes sense in the AAC. 

What would happen if JMU moved to the Atlantic Coast Conference?

ACC

First, the 21-16 trash talk gets an expiration date. Second, JMU becomes relevant on the FBS stage immediately.

The move makes sense geographically, and I’m sure the conference would love adding the second best football team in the Commonwealth. Hey, give JMU 22 more scholarships and it might not be long until the Dukes are the best the state of Virginia has to offer.

Both Georgia Tech (No. 42) and Pittsburgh (No. 46) are within two spots of JMU in the 2017 final rankings. With JMU adding Pittsburgh quarterback Ben DiNucci in the offseason, we’ll go ahead and give JMU the Panthers’ spot in the ACC as well. Why not just take everything?

Week 1 vs. Albany

Why even leave the CAA at this point? Some how, some way, the Dukes still find themselves playing a Colonial Athletic Association foe. Maybe these hypothetical scenarios are trying to tell us something.

In fantasy world, however, JMU moves to the ACC. And Houston and company didn’t join a Power 5 conference to lose to Albany. Dukes win big.

Result: WIN

Record: 1-0 (0-0)

Week 2 vs. Penn State 

JMU isn’t beating Penn State, but take a minute to imagine the atmosphere in Harrisonburg the week before the Nittany Lions come to town. Imagine streamers flying in a packed Bridgeforth Stadium as the Dukes score a touchdown on a top-10 FBS team. Imagine JMU pulling out a game like it did against Weber State, but with a program like Penn State on the other side.

It’s a great visual, and the reason many fans do dream of a move to the higher level. Of course, the ACC isn’t phoning Harrisonburg any time soon.

Result: LOSS

Record: 1-1 (0-0)

Week 3 vs. Georgia Tech

To remain consistent with earlier predictions, JMU loses to GT.

Result: LOSS

Record: 1-2 (0-1)

Week 4 at North Carolina

North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora doesn’t believe football contributes to CTE. Maybe he thinks science is fake. With what we’ve seen from his teams over the years, we aren’t sure he believes in defense either (ba dum tss).

With JMU’s roster connected to the Tar Heel state, the Dukes relish the opportunity to smack UNC on the road. JMU wins.

Result: WIN

Record: 2-2 (1-1)

Week 5 at UCF

Not these guys again. You’ve heard the schtick. Say it with me now, “Muh-KEN-Zee Mil-ton.”

Result: LOSS

Record: 2-3 (1-1)

Week 6 vs. Syracuse

If JMU joins the ACC for all sports, the Dukes better take advantage of Syracuse on the gridiron, because they aren’t picking up many basketball victories. JMU earns a close win. Eric Dungey is a talented QB, but JMU’s defense does just enough to contain the competitive senior signal caller.

Result: WIN

Record: 3-3 (2-1)

Week 7 at Notre Dame

JMU gets annihilated, but the fans that make the trek to South Bend enjoy a trip and experience of a lifetime.

Result: LOSS

Record: 3-4 (2-1)

Week 8 Bye

Week 9 vs. Duke

Duke puts together a solid squad nearly every year under head coach David Cutcliffe, and 2018 shouldn’t be much different. While Duke isn’t a national title contender, they’re tough. The bye week and home-field advantage prove to be the difference for JMU, which picks up a win behind a big day from Marcus Marshall.

Result: WIN

Record: 4-4 (3-1)

Week 10 at Virginia

Bronco Mendenhall continues to overhaul the culture at Virginia. The Cavaliers started strong in 2017 before sputtering down the stretch. Over the summer, Mendenhall drew attention for saying his roster had just 27 ACC caliber players. That’s not good when you’re an ACC team.

JMU embraces the challenge and picks up a Friday night victory on ESPN. A win that excites the fanbase gets the Dukes within one win of bowl eligibility before their date with the Hokies.

Result: WIN

Record: 5-4 (4-1)

Week 11 vs. Virginia Tech

Week 11 brings Virginia Tech and the most anticipated JMU football game in recent memory. Bridgeforth goes bananas for the massive game, but the Dukes fall just short in the fourth quarter against an impressive group from Blacksburg.

Result: LOSS

Record: 5-5 (4-2)

Week 12 at Wake Forest

Wake Forest isn’t a perfect team, but Dave Clawson, the former head man at Richmond, has done a nice job with the program. The Demon Deacons are on the rise and JMU is emotionally spent following two rivalry games.

Result: LOSS

Record: 5-6 (4-3)

Week 13 at Miami

A bruising first season in the ACC ends in Miami against one of the ACC’s best. The Hurricanes have a few flaws, but their athleticism on defense is off the charts. Mark Richt is one of the nation’s top coaches, and he’ll have his group ready to go in the final game of the season. JMU drops its third game in a row and doesn’t qualify for a bowl.

Result: LOSS

Record: 5-7 (4-4)

Verdict

Becoming a consistent contender for an ACC championship would likely take 10+ years, but becoming a 7-9 win ACC team after a few years isn’t that ridiculous of an idea. Obviously, JMU isn’t on the ACC’s radar at the moment, but JMU football’s on-field product is right there with UNC, Duke and Virginia. On the flipside, bringing all of JMU’s athletic programs to the ACC means the Dukes’ men’s basketball program has to compete with those same three schools. That’d be a mess.

Final Verdict

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Photo credit: pixabay.com/Pexels

I’m not the first person to say this, but JMU football’s on-field product is more than capable of a leap forward. The American Athletic Conference seems like a perfect fit, but could JMU make the move to a Power 5 if conferences realign in coming years? It’s highly unlikely given off-the-field factors, but it’s not a stretch to say JMU’s football, softball, lacrosse, volleyball and field hockey teams could move to a Power 5 conference and be competitive within five years.

JMU fans: Appreciate the school’s current athletic positioning. With the Union Bank & Trust Center on the way and two national titles in the past two academic years, JMU is nearing a “Golden Age” for its athletic programs. The next 5-10 years promise to be special. Come 2030, people may be surprised at the national relevance of JMU athletics. 

 

 

 

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