The Critical Year for JMU Football

Image courtesy of The Breeze

By Jack Fitzpatrick

JMU has seen its run of success as of late and that has fans putting them into the same tier as arguably the greatest college football dynasty of all time, North Dakota State University. Now, as a fan, I can see that, but when I take step back and look at it from the outside I think it may be time to pump the brakes. 

JMU seemed to catapult themselves into this conversation overnight. They went into Goliath’s house and took him down back in 2016 and that was the start of this conversation. But really is it warranted up to this point? 

It all started just like a rocket blasting off into space. It was loud, it was fast and there was fire. The Dukes for all intents and purposes took off in 2016. But they hit some turbulence last season when they finished 9-4 and were bounced from the playoffs by Colgate in the second round for the second time in four years. Now, they are sitting at No. 1 in some polls and widely considered to be a real threat to be holding the trophy in Frisco at the end of this year. 

Let’s take a look at the last three years and how it has set the Dukes up to be in this spot, and just how they compare to the Bison. 

Houston we have lift off

Mike Houston was able to make the Dukes title contenders in just one offseason. Then in three short years took this Dukes squad to a level that was previously not thought of. This team’s talent was withering away with former coach Everett Withers leading the way. His philosophy of score 50 allow 49 wasn’t working and wasn’t translating to post season success. Then Houston stepped into the Valley and seemingly overnight the Dukes became a punch-you-in-the-mouth team with excellent upper-class leadership with the likes of Aaron Stinnie, Raven Greene and Gage Steele just to name a few. 

In 2016 the Dukes went on to go undefeated in the Colonial Athletic Association, and they looked like world-beaters.

Let’s reminisce for a second because that was a year of football we won’t soon forget. Quarterback Bryan Schor and his plethora of receiving options tore up defenses, and when they needed a quick change of pace, running back Khalid Abdullah seemed to scamper for 10 yards every time he touched the ball. (He did average a staggering 6.1 yards per carry that season). 

But I digress. 

Then 2017 came and the expectations were there and the team delivered. Schor again delivered with every pass, the backfield made up of Trai Sharp and newly transferred Marcus Marshall carved up opponents’ defensive schemes week in and week out. This team again looked like world-beaters, and they got all the way to the national championship for the long-awaited rematch against NDSU. And they came up one dropped pass from receiver Terrance Alls short. We all remember the feeling. 

Then 2018 came. 

New quarterback, new defense, new offensive line. Things clicked in the beginning and the fans all thought (myself included) the Dukes were going to get back to Frisco, Texas, and have Part III of the Bison vs. Dukes rivalry and the Dukes were going to get their revenge. 

Then they didn’t. 

Image Courtesy of JMU Athletics Communication

We all know how the story went. Lost to Elon at home, the first loss at Bridgeforth since Gameday in 2015 against the Spiders, loss to New Hampshire behind a Ben DiNucci benching, and the Colgate loss in the second round. 9-4 final record. 

And this is where the brakes are applied. 

In the years of Houston, JMU was 37-6, one play away from back-to-back titles, a second-round exit from the playoffs and has now all the hype in the world surrounding the program.

Teams that are on the same tier as NDSU really shouldn’t post a 9-4 record with a second-round exit in the FCS playoffs. Just to compare, NDSU hasn’t had a 9-4 or worse record since their 2010 campaign, and they haven’t exited the playoffs in the second round since 2009 when they were 3-8 and failed to make the postseason. 

What if?

The what-if game is always the go-to in sports when defending a loss. Like what-if Alls makes the catch and the Dukes win back-to-back titles? Or what-if that phantom fumble in the first quarter was ruled correctly? What-if Houston had been more aggressive to finish out the first half?

All fantastic what-ifs, and we can speculate what could have happened until the end of days. There is a flip side to that as well. What if in the Weber State game Ethan Ratke misses this kick,

and the game went to overtime and the Wildcats win it? What if Riley Stapleton doesn’t catch one of the amazing catches he had during the game? What if the defense allows just one first down on the Wildcats’ final possession allowing them to bleed the clock and Ratke never even gets his attempt?

It is a slippery slope playing the what-if game. 

And now here we are. Three years later, two national championship appearances with one win later and now a new coach. We don’t know if this Dukes team is going to be good this year. Yeah, they return practically their whole squad so the potential is great and their ceiling is high as ever. But their floor can be low, too. We saw what the team looked like against Colgate and New Hampshire. Just as easily as they could upset an FBS foe and go undefeated, they could struggle and limp into the playoffs, or even miss it because of the strength of the CAA. 

That’s why this is the critical year. If the Dukes can put something together, you can put them in the same conversation as the Bison. At this point, though, the Bison are still untouchable.

This team is capable of becoming the next great dynasty. The potential is there, they have an Athletic Director in Jeff Bourne that will do whatever it takes to make sure his athletic teams are poised for greatness. The Dukes have a coach with a proven track record of success. The team has arguably the best facilities in the FCS. Now, they just need to put it all together and this is the best time to do it. 

Critical year

Look, North Dakota State is really good, with emphasis on the really. What they have done shouldn’t be done in collegiate athletics, no matter the sport. They have been great every year since 2011. Winning the national title every year except in 2016 when James Madison won it (but you knew that already). 

Looking at the comparison of the two teams since 2016, NDSU has better records and stats in almost every category. The Bison are different. They are consistent. They have years of excellence on their side. JMU since 2016 hasn’t even done what NDSU has done since 2016, let alone since 2011. 

That is what separates NDSU from the rest of the pack and why it deserves its own echelon. As a JMU alumnus, it pains me to say it, but there is no earthly way JMU can be on NDSU’s tier. You could say it has been a down three years for NDSU and looking at the Bison’s 2016 season statistics specifically, it was a down year for them. Not taking anything away from what the Dukes did in 2016, but we are comparing the height of JMU’s greatness to a lower point of NDSU. 

That is why this is the critical year, and so is next year, and in all honesty the next. JMU has been a national title contender and a favorite for just three years now. In 2016 the Dukes weren’t favorites going into the year, they had no pressure. Now for the third straight year, they have a bullseye on their back. NDSU has had that bullseye since 2011, and it has seven titles. 

JMU needs to string together a couple more years of great play and put last year behind them, because if that is the end result, they may not even deserve to be in what I call “Tier 2” above the Eastern Washington types. 

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