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.

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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.

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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. 

 

 

 

JMU Football 2018 Game-by-game Predictions

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.

 

 

 

 

JMU Football’s 2 Most Underrated Players

Riley Stapleton, Cardon Johnson, Trai Sharp, Rashad Robinson, Darrious Carter and Jimmy Moreland are all names JMU football fans have heard plenty of during training camp. These guys are expected to be some of JMU’s top performers and contributors during the 2018-19 season. With a roster as loaded as JMU’s, it makes sense that the players mentioned above garner the majority of headlines. They’ve proven themselves worthy of media attention.

There are a few guys, however, that JMU fans take for granted at this point in the offseason. They know they’ll perform well, but nobody is bouncing off the walls with excitement over them. It’s time for JMU fans to get thrilled about Virginia transfers David Eldridge and Landan Word.

David Eldridge

When it comes to discussing JMU wide receivers, the conversations normally focus on Riley Stapleton and the battle for the No. 3 receiver position. There might be a brief mention of Eldridge, but nothing that compares to the attention focused on Stapleton or the young receivers competing for playing time. JMU fans are sleeping on Eldridge.

Eldridge, who played at Virginia for two seasons, snagged 18 receptions for 442 yards and four touchdowns as a Cavalier. The total reception number isn’t anything special, but averaging 24.6 yards per catch and scoring a touchdown on over 20 percent of his receptions speaks to his explosiveness. Stapleton tends to be the receiver fans consider the explosive downfield threat, but when given the opportunity, Eldridge excels after the catch and on deeper throws.

At JMU, Eldridge joined a crowded group of receivers and still brought in 42 receptions for 533 yards and four touchdowns. His longest catch of the season went for 46 yards, which beat Stapleton’s longest reception by 6 yards. Eldridge matched Stapleton’s reception total and only had one fewer touchdown. Of course, Stapleton played two fewer games and put together a dominant postseason run, which is why he deserves all the attention he’s received. With that being said, Eldridge fills the Brandon Ravenel type role in JMU’s offense. He’s not necessarily the biggest or fastest guy on the roster, but he’s reliable.

Reliability isn’t sexy, so Eldridge isn’t going to get casual fans as excited as other players on JMU’s roster, but his importance can’t be stressed enough. He racked up 10 games last season with at least three receptions in an offense that featured Terrence Alls, Riley Stapleton, John Miller, Jonathan Kloosterman, Ishmael Hyman and Clayton Cheatham. With four of those guys graduating, Eldridge immediately becomes the likely No. 2 option in the offense. If he can stay healthy, he has a realistic chance to lead the team in receptions and put together a season with over 50 catches, 700 yards and 4-6 TDs.

Landan Word

Kyre Hawkins, Brandon Hereford and Gus Little combined for 213 tackles last season. All three are no longer on the roster. With Raven Greene and Jordan Brown combining for 158 tackles of their own, there’s a lot of tackling to be replaced on JMU’s defense.

Enter Landan Word.

Physically, Word resembles a “Create-A-Player” linebacker in a video game. At 6-foot-5-inches tall and 244 lbs, Word weighs more than some of JMU’s defensive ends. He was a three-star recruit coming out of high school, with offers from Virginia, Arizona, Boston College and Pittsburgh. His father played running back in the NFL for seven seasons after a career at Virginia. Going off of pure measurables and genetics, Word is one of JMU’s most fascinating prospects.

Last season, Word played in 14 games, but received just one start with a plethora of talent ahead of him on the roster. With three top linebackers gone, Word grabs a starting role. He recorded 31 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble and a pass breakup last season. Nothing remarkable, but he was a reliable backup.

His big-game ability jumps off the page after two seasons of limited work. His season-high in tackles last year came against Villanova with ESPN’s “College GameDay” in town. He made five tackles and forced a fumble in the victory. At Virginia, Word had just 21 tackles as a freshman, but also put up three tackles for loss, two sacks, and a fumble recovery. Against No. 5 Louisville, he started for the first time in his career and added five tackles, a tackle for loss and a pass breakup. Against No. 22 North Carolina, he had four tackles and a sack. His two best games as a freshman came against offenses led by Mitchell Trubisky and Lamar Jackson.

He’s shown the ability to make plays in meaningful games, and he has all the measurables to become an elite CAA linebacker. With an increased role this season, Word becomes capable of recording 100 or more tackles this season.

Get excited, JMU fans. Your team has two Virginia transfers poised for big seasons and they aren’t getting much of any media attention. That speaks to the depth, explosiveness and overall talent of the Dukes’ roster.

The 2018 JMU football season is one of the most anticipated in program history. For the Dukes to reach their goals, they’ll need more than big plays, flashy highlights and blowout victories. Expect reliability and consistency to be the story of the season. Eldridge and Word are the perfect authors to write that script.

3 Reasons JMU Football Upsets N.C. State

I know what you’re thinking, “Bennett, you do these countdown posts every Saturday, and today is Monday! What gives?!”

Let me explain. First, nobody is asking that question. If we’re going by last week’s numbers on traffic, nobody is even reading these articles, but I like the thought of having a massive following of outraged fans clamoring for my next post, so were going to pretend.

Second, I treated myself to a Red Sox-Orioles game this weekend for JMU Night. I went to get a JMU-themed Orioles hat and a chance to watch the best team in baseball in person. My girlfriend lives in Maryland, so I suppose that factored into the decision as well. Caroline, if you’re reading this, those three reasons for attending were in reverse order of importance.

As I left the stadium, someone asked where I got the JMU-Orioles hat and mentioned wanting one for his niece. Being a gentleman, I kindly gave him the hat for free and wished him a nice night. As he left, his friend let out a laugh and I quickly realized this man probably (definitely) didn’t have a niece. Regardless, the Orioles are about 850 games below .500, so I’ll let them win one.

Anyway, back to today.  I’ve spent the last week or two digesting every article written about both N.C. State and JMU football. Before eating them, I read them, too. I’ve learned more about the Wolfpack than I’ve ever cared to know, and I feel knowledgeable enough to write today’s article and share three reasons why I think JMU pulls off the upset on Sept. 1. I won’t be surprised if N.C. State wins, but I really like the Dukes’ chances, even if they haven’t announced a starting quarterback yet. Before we get to that, though, let’s talk about why I’m not writing an article titled “3 Ways to Tell the Perfect Dad Joke” or “3 Tips to Look Super Scrawny.”

Wait, what? Remain patient, non-existent readers, we’ll get there.

The other day, I tweeted about Maryland’s football controversy.

Not everyone enjoyed my tweet.

As the Twitter egg clearly stated “Stick to what you know.” Here’s the issue with that, folks. I’m most knowledgeable at making dad jokes and being small. But nobody wants to read about those topics. When they do, I promise I’ll never write a single tweet about football again. It’ll be exclusively bad puns and tips on how to workout without gaining an ounce of muscle.

Until then, I’m going to keep tweeting about college football. And journalism. And small business. Because I like those things. While my Twitter account might not be the most niche-specific account out there, it’s true to myself. I love entrepreneurship and the different factors that go into starting and running a business. Last year, I spent early August racing back and forth between JMU football training camp and my internship at the Small Business Development Center. JMU football isn’t the only thing I’m interested in, and that’s a good thing for me. There’s more to life than football.

If you don’t like the wide range of tweets, I don’t blame you at all. I’m not sure I’d like it if I were in your shoes. Luckily, the great people at Twitter don’t hold a gun to your head and make you read my tweets. Don’t worry, I won’t ever be offended if you hit unfollow.

In terms of my JMU football/sports knowledge, I think I’m qualified to write blog posts on my own website. Considering they’re blog posts. And it’s my website. A few years at The Breeze, a season of MadiZONE and some bylines for HERO Sports make me think I’m not just pulling stuff out of a hat when I talk JMU football. Would you agree, Twitter egg?

I’ll take that as a soft yes.

Defensive line play

No transition needed, let’s get back to the gridiron. I love JMU’s defensive line on paper, and I love it even more on grass. See, dad jokes! Darrious and Ron’Dell Carter join forces with John Daka, Matt Terrell, Paris Black, Adeeb Atariwa and Mike Greene to make up a deep and explosive group. Daka is a practice and scrimmage machine as he’s excelled in recent scrimmages and the spring game. He’ll be a problem off the edge. The two Carters are remarkable athletes and expected to be key contributors. The two defensive tackles in Atariwa and Greene will play a huge role this season, and I expect them to become tremendous run stoppers as the season develops.

In short, JMU’s defensive line is good enough to play against an FBS offensive line. In most FCS over FBS upsets, the offensive and defensive lines hold their own. It’s hard to spring an upset if you’re get demolished in the trenches. If JMU beats N.C. State, the defensive line will have to play well and disrupt the pocket.

Stellar secondary

N.C. State’s strength is without a doubt its passing game. The Wolfpack averaged just over 270 passing yards per game last season, and they return veteran quarterback Ryan Finley. Kelvin Harmon serves as Finley’s best receiving threat, and the Dukes’ secondary will face its toughest passing test since they played UNC back in 2016.

Luckily for JMU, and the No. 1 reason I think this upset is more than the dream of many JMU fans, is that the secondary might be JMU’s best position group. Rashad Robinson and Jimmy Moreland man the corner positions after combining for 15 interceptions a year ago. Adding in Wayne Davis Jr. gives the Dukes a solid weapon at safety, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him paired with D’Angelo Amos. The Dukes currently have three other guys vying for those two safety spots as well.

This doesn’t even account for corners Charles Tutt and Curtis Oliver, both of whom possess great talent and meaningful experience as Dukes. For N.C. State, Finley went 339 passes across the 2016 and 2017 seasons without throwing an interception. JMU intercepted 31 of its opponents’ 459 passes in 2017. It’ll be good vs. good on Sept. 1. Bob Trott emphasizes turnovers, and JMU has the weapons to force an interception or two on one of the more accurate passers in college football. Without a great secondary, JMU wouldn’t stand much of a chance, but the Dukes boast one of the best secondaries in the FCS.

Reliable running game

JMU stays in the game because of its defensive line and secondary, but the Dukes win because of their running game.

Cardon Johnson is an FBS killer, and the Dukes as a team perform well on the ground against FBS foes.

Take a look at the last three games vs. FBS teams.

2015 vs. SMU: 52 carries, 440 yards, 3 TDs

Vad Lee ran for a school-record 276 yards and became the first D-I quarterback to rush and pass for over 275 yards in the same game. JMU won 48-45.

2016 vs. UNC: 50 carries, 209 yards, 3 TDs

Cardon Johnson also added a 68-yard touchdown reception in the 56-28 loss. Despite the loss, JMU led 21-14 after a quarter in Mike Houston’s first season. The issue wasn’t the offense, it was the defense getting torched for 462 yards and three touchdowns through the air. With a much more experienced secondary this season, the Dukes stand a better chance of limiting busted coverages.

2017 vs. ECU: 42 carries, 410 yards, 4 TDs

Johnson excelled, tallying 265 yards on just 17 carries. Marcus Marshall added 88 yards and a touchdown as well. The Dukes ran wild against a mediocre ECU defense.

TOTAL: 144 carries, 1,059 yards, 10 TDs.

The Dukes are averaging 353 yards and 3.33 TDs on the ground in their last three matchups with FBS teams.

N.C. State’s defense is much more comparable to UNC’s, but I do expect more than 200 yards rushing from JMU against the Wolfpack. This puts the Dukes right in the game if their defense doesn’t allow a 56-point explosion like they did against the Tar Heels. With a better defensive team, and an opposing offense that isn’t quite as explosive as UNC’s 2016 squad, I like JMU’s chances of knocking off the Wolfpack.

The Dukes still need strong quarterback play and to handle a hostile road environment, but assuming this game won’t be close because JMU’s an FCS school is absurd. JMU has the talent, the experience and the needed personnel to handle an FBS school of N.C. State’s caliber. JMU pulls the upset on Sept. 1 behind an elite group of running backs and a defense that’s FBS caliber.

FINAL: JMU 31, N.C. State 27 

 

 

 

 

4 Keys to JMU Football Training Camp

JMU football opened training camp Friday for the third time under head coach Mike Houston. In his previous two seasons, Houston led the Dukes to a 28-2 record and two national title game appearances. As the Dukes enter year three, the expectations are higher than ever for a storied FCS program.

Nobody doubts JMU’s talent. The team’s roster features All-American caliber players at nearly every position. Despite the talent and expectations, questions surround the Dukes. Let’s take a look at the four biggest questions surrounding JMU football’s 2018 training camp and the key to the Dukes’ answering them.

Question: Who’s the starting quarterback?

Key: JMU needs to feel confident in one quarterback heading into the season opener at N.C. State.

The Dukes could try out both Ben DiNucci and Cole Johnson against Norfolk State, Robert Morris and William & Mary and win all three games, but they’d much rather have one guy and stick with him, especially in the season opener against an ACC squad.

DiNucci had the better spring game, but it’s still a two-horse race. DiNucci is more athletic and can make more plays with his legs, but Johnson throws a better ball, especially down the field. With a loaded group of running backs, the coaching staff may opt for a player like Johnson that can keep the defense from loading the box.

Bryan Schor shifted the dynamic of the 2016-17 season when he became more comfortable throwing the ball downfield. When Schor connected on deep throws, JMU’s offense played on a different level. With a receiver like Riley Stapleton headlining the team’s offensive weapons, it’s critical JMU plays a quarterback able to consistently connect with him on deeper throws. For DiNucci, camp will be spent proving he can do this. For Johnson, it’s about showing that his passing ability surpasses what DiNucci brings to the table athletically. It should be a heated battle. Even with the spring game, I wouldn’t dismiss Johnson’s chances just yet.

Question: How will the Dukes manage their loaded backfield this season?

Key: Finding a consistent rotation.

An embarrassment of riches. That’s the only way to accurately describe what the Dukes have at the running back position. The key with the running backs will be riding the hot hand and keeping everyone healthy throughout the season, especially Cardon Johnson. Expect Johnson, Marcus Marshall and Trai Sharp to carry the load this season with Jawon Hamilton and Percy Agyei-Obese getting worked into the rotation as well. I’d expect heavy doses of Johnson and Marshall against N.C. State with the other three backs getting increased workloads in the rest of the nonconference schedule.

When the Dukes move into conference play, I’d expect the offense to ride the hot hand and give the backs performing at the highest level the most touches. This could easily vary on a game-by-game basis, much like it did last season.

Deciding how this rotation will work against N.C. State is a training camp key for the coaching staff.

Question: Can the Dukes consistently win the battle in the trenches?

Key: The offensive and defensive line come close to reaching their full potential.

The Dukes don’t need perfection up front to dominate the line of scrimmage. The offensive line features players like Mac Patrick, Tyree Chavious and Liam Fornadel that all boast supreme talent. If the Dukes get their young offensive linemen anywhere close to reaching their full potential, they’ll be a handful for most teams and a legitimate contender for a national title.

Defensively, the same applies. Ron’Dell and Darrious Carter headline a potentially frightening defensive front. John Daka has all the athleticism and potential needed to be an elite pass rusher, while guys like Mike Greene possess what it takes to stuff the middle in the run game. There’s an abundance of talent on both the offensive and defensive fronts. If both units reach their potential this season, or come close to reaching it, JMU is set up for a special season. Training camp plays a meaningful role in preparing to reach maximum potential.

Much like the running back position, figuring out the rotation will be critical to the overall success of both the offensive and defensive lines. Expect the clear starters and unexpected contributors to emerge the week of August 20.

Question: Who’s the third receiving option?

Key: Finding a player that complements Stapleton and David Eldridge. 

This could even come in the form of Clayton Cheatham or Nick Carlton at the tight end position. Regardless, the Dukes need someone to help take the pressure off Stapleton and Eldridge. Given Stapleton’s dominant postseason, which included three touchdowns and numerous “He just Moss’d him!” catches, defenses will invest heavily on stopping him. If the other receiving threats can perform well enough to get Stapleton one-on-one coverage with minimal safety help over the top, the Dukes’ passing game will have a field day.

Summary: Every team enters training camp with questions. If you’re a JMU fan, there’s no reason to panic as the Dukes look like one of the two best teams in the country heading into Week 1. If the Dukes can find answers to the four questions above in either training camp or the first few weeks of the season, they’ll have a tremendous shot at making three national title games in three seasons under Houston.

 

5 Reasons JMU’s Harry O’Kelly Should Start at Running Back

JMU football faces a massive problem. The Dukes lack skill and depth at the running back position. Running backs coach De’Rail Sims likely spends his nights awake, pacing his bedroom and wondering how he’ll scrap together respectable performances this season. It might sound crazy, but the Dukes need to lean on a player known for his punting. That’s right, Harry O’Kelly.

The Dukes need to start Harry O’Kelly at running back. It’s not ideal, but it’s the only decision that makes any sense. Here’s why:

  1. Weak position group

As I just mentioned, each JMU running back has glaring flaws. See below.

Cardon Johnson: If Cardon’s car broke down, he’d probably just toss it on his shoulders and carry it to the shop. He looks like a linebacker. I think I once heard somebody say that muscle is heavier than fat. Cardon’s 200-pound muscular frame means he weighs about 500 pounds in regular person weight.

Who’s the last marathon winner to look like the Rock? Sure, Johnson has been successful in the past, but are 25 games, 312 carries and over 2,000 career rushing yards really enough of a sample size for us to think he’s a solid option?

Marcus Marshall: Did you see how quickly he got down the field on his touchdowns runs against South Dakota State? Moving that fast makes him a huge injury risk. It’s basic science. If you’re driving a car 70 mph and get into a car accident, your car’s damage is going to substantially worse than if you were driving 5 mph.

My advice to Marcus, as a 12-minute miler myself, is that slow and steady wins the race. He should head to Barnes and Noble and pick up a copy of “The Tortoise and The Hare” for some light summer reading.

Trai Sharp:  Last season, he ran 36 times for 185 yards and a touchdown in a 20-10 victory on the road. For someone that loves embarrassing Danny Rocco’s defense, how will he react to Delaware not being on JMU’s schedule this season?

Jawon Hamilton: Hamilton, while remarkably gifted, transferred from UCF. How will he handle the transition of going from a self-proclaimed national champion to an actual national champion? It might be difficult to adjust to a trophy case filled with actual trophies and not imaginary achievements.

Percy Agyei-Obese: His last name is really hard to pronounce. It’ll be hard for Sims to call on Agyei-Obese to enter the game if Percy isn’t sure if he’s saying “Agyei-Obese or Cardon Johnson.” Granted, they don’t sound anything alike, but with crowd noise at Bridgeforth, sounds get jumbled.

2. No wear on his tires

O’Kelly barely has any mileage on his legs. He’s only had three carries his entire college career. Talk about fresh legs!

He’s also averaging 21 yards per carry. Imagine giving him 250 carries next year. He’d finish the year with an astounding 5,250 yards. Equally astounding, his averages suggest he won’t score a single touchdown. This sounds crazy, but numbers never lie.

3. Spin cycle

Part laundry machine, part man. O’Kelly leaves defenders spinning deliriously after he pulls out his juke moves. Few players in the country possess the shiftiness of O’Kelly.

4. Little film on him

What’s a football coach’s biggest fear? Not having film on opposing players. Good luck figuring out how to stop a Harry O’Kelly Wildcat package by watching three fake punts on film. That’s the equivalent of trying to pilot a helicopter after watching a two-minute YouTube video. It’s not happening.

5. Add to his legendary status

He’s Australian, leads the team in yards per carry, pulls off fake punts in critical moments and cracks jokes on Twitter. What better way to add to the legacy of everybody’s favorite Duke than to let him start at running back?

Here’s a collection of O’Kelly’s best Twitter work: