Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications
By Bennett Conlin, Chase Kiddy and Jack Fitzpatrick
New Hampshire comes to town after earning the No. 10 position in the FCS Selection Committee’s opening rankings. That’s a bit surprising given the Wildcats’ position in the polls, but the recent news adds importance to this game.
The Dukes are battling for a CAA title and a top-2 seed, and they’ll need to win out to get that done. That mission starts this week with a home matchup with UNH after a bye week last weekend.
JMU returns from a bye week to face New Hampshire. What does JMU need to do to beat the Wildcats a year after a disappointing loss to them?
Bennett Conlin, JMU Sports News: Win the turnover battle. The Dukes gave the ball away to the Wildcats last year with joy. They hand-wrapped the football and wrote lovely notes to the New Hampshire players before gently handing them the ball. JMU struggled last year, benching DiNucci and watching Cole Johnson turn the ball over after replacing DiNucci. It was ugly.
New Hampshire plays solid defense, but the Wildcats aren’t all that special on offense. UNH ranks last in the CAA in scoring this season. JMU should win this game, but it should’ve won last year’s game. New Hampshire rarely beats itself, which is why the program makes the playoffs so consistently. JMU holds the roster edge on both sides of the ball, it just can’t beat itself Saturday if it wants to win.
Chase Kiddy, Master of None: Not turn the ball over six times? *laughs nervously*
Look, JMU got its ass kicked last year in this game. I think we all know that. But I highly doubt that those circumstances play out even remotely similarly this year, since JMU is playing at home, coming out of a bye. JMU can beat New Hampshire by showing up focused. The Dukes are the better team. All they have to do is act like it.
Jack Fitzpatrick, JMU Sports News, very late: I’ll keep my answers quick this roundtable since I am 24 hours late to the party. The most important key to this game is putting up 20 points. Look, JMU is coming off of a bye, they are ready for this game, they know how to attack this potent UNH secondary and they have a game plan to stop this not-so-good Wildcats offense. UNH is one of the best defenses in the CAA, but also one of the worst offenses, this will be a defensive slug fest but JMU has the offense that can score with the best of them. So, to me the key it just hitting that 20 point mark and I can almost guarantee Cignetti then turning around and handing it to his four-headed monster backfield and bleeding the clock down and not letting the UNH offense get a chance.
New Hampshire is just behind the Dukes in the CAA standings. What makes this UNH team one of the best in the CAA?
Bennett: New Hampshire’s offense leaves a lot to be desired, but the defense can play. It ranks second in scoring behind JMU, allowing only 16.6 points per game compared to JMU’s 16.1. It’s a minor difference, and the Dukes and Wildcats are the only CAA teams allowing fewer than 20 points per contest.
The Wildcats are a tough team, and they’re absurdly good against the pass. They’ve somehow only allowed four passing touchdowns all season, and they’ve snatched 13 interceptions. Every other CAA team has yielded at least 13 passing TDs. The secondary makes UNH elite.
Chase: I had a tweet last week that I’m not sure whether Richmond & UNH are actually two of the best teams in the CAA, or if they just haven’t had to take the same JMU virtual auto-loss that the rest of the conference already has. Leaning toward the latter — all you need to know about UNH is that it was ranked No. 10 in this past week’s playoff peek-ahead rankings, yet the Wildcats could still miss the playoffs. And that’s not some crazy Doomsday scenario, either. It’s pretty realistic, given final few weeks of the schedule ahead of them.
Either way, New Hampshire plays solid northeastern CAA defense, and the offense is a bit grittier than you might expect from the Wildcats. It’s a capable team that, not unlike Missouri Valley teams, has a favorable style of play when December rolls around. JMU is the better team, but they still need to be taken seriously. JMU hasn’t won the CAA quite yet.
Jack: Jack: Everything that Bennett said. This is an amazing defense, what do they say? Defense wins championships? Yeah, that’s it. This defense is really really really good, four passing touchdowns allowed all season? Their back four make the front seven even better and they all feed off each other. This is a strong strong defense that has been key in the UNH turnaround.
There’s been significant discussion about the Dukes potentially dropping to the No. 3 seed if Weber State wins out. If JMU wins out, will the Dukes earn a top-2 seed or will Weber State surpass them?
Bennett: If both teams win out, Weber State’s resume makes it worthy of a top-2 seed. With that being said, the NCAA Selection Committee makes a lot of head-scratching decisions. I have a hard time seeing the committee sliding JMU to No. 3 if it wins out.
If the Dukes do earn the No. 3 seed, that hurts. A top-2 seed guarantees home playoff games throughout the postseason until the national title in Frisco, Texas. JMU would much prefer a semifinal in Bridgeforth than at Weber State or any other destination. The Dukes need to keep winning decisively to help secure their seed.
I’m also not sure JMU’s resume is much worse that Weber’s, although it’s easy to see why Weber State would want a top-2 seed if it finishes the year undefeated against the FCS. Road wins at Sacramento State and Montana are no joke. Weber State is impressive. I also think it’s in line to earn the No. 3 seed.
Chase: Bennett hits the nail on the head here. Weber’s impressive resume makes it a worthy choice at No. 2, but I really can’t see the committee jumping Weber over JMU — especially given the brand value that the Dukes have these days. (That shouldn’t really be a factor in these proceedings, but let’s be adults here — it definitely makes a difference.) If you’re a conspiracy guy, you might almost wonder if the committee stashed UNH at No. 10 in this week’s poll, just to give JMU a parallel opportunity to Weber State’s Montana showdown next week.
There’s also this: forget you have any allegiance at all to JMU. Watch Weber play. Now watch the Dukes. Which team looks better? To me, it’s the Dukes pretty much every time.
Jack: God no. There is so much more to this whole thing than the strength of schedule. Yes, that is an important component but it isn’t the only one. Only looking at the SOS and not anything else is like reading chapter two of the Goblet of Fire in the Harry Potter series, it gives you a glimpse into the story but not the whole thing. Bennett and I talked for about 20 minutes on this topic on the podcast and I highly recommend taking a listen.
The CAA is beating itself up. How do you view the league? Is it one of the best in the country or are many CAA teams overrated?
Bennett: The CAA is still one of the best leagues in the country, but many of the teams are beatable.
The teams outside of JMU that make the playoffs won’t be massive favorites to advance deep into the postseason. I don’t think that means the league is overrated. It’s a good league, and even teams like Albany and Elon are decent. Regardless, the league isn’t top-heavy, which hurts its national perception.
Aside from JMU, I wouldn’t be stunned to see any CAA teams lose early in the postseason. Villanova is 0-3 after a 6-0 start, Towson struggles defensively and Stony Brook and Richmond are close to knocking themselves out of playoff contention. New Hampshire will contend for a playoff berth as well, but the Wildcats can’t score.
It’s not an overrated league, but many squads are above average instead of great.
Chase: I think it’s in our nature to view conferences like bell curves, and the CAA just isn’t that neat this year. There isn’t a neat set of tiers, like there was last year or in seasons past; instead, there’s JMU at the top, and then a massive sop of teams in the 2-8 range, and good luck figuring out who’s better than who. For now, Richmond and New Hampshire are tied for second, but Richmond is all but eliminated from the playoffs at this point, and New Hampshire just doesn’t have that ‘We’re second-best in the conference” shine.
Jack: I think it is still one of the top conferences in the country, and like Chase said it is JMU then everyone else. Anyone can win every weekend and that isn’t because the top is weak, it is because the bottom is strong. Bennett was calling William & Mary the cinderella of the CAA earlier in the season, and for good reason, they looked and played like a good team. Now they are at the bottom of the conference but are a real threat every year. So these last few weird weeks in the CAA haven’t changed my perspective about the league, it has however made my column over at HERO sports very difficult to write.
The Dukes return home for a pair of big CAA games. What’s your favorite part of attending a game at Bridgeforth?
Bennett: I’ll take an obvious pick (throwing streamers) with a minor twist (close games). There’s nothing better than throwing a streamer after an important JMU play. Sure, it’s fun to throw streamers when the Dukes are up 40, but I like seeing the sky filled with purple and gold when the Dukes make an important play in the fourth quarter of a tight game.
Chase: This is a lame media answer, but just enjoying the environment, the game day atmosphere, and the evolution of the stadium. When I got to JMU in 2009, the stadium was in limbo, and we had to catch the drunk bus between the bookstore and Mr. Chips, because Godwin Transportation Center wasn’t really a thing yet. Many of my friends neither knew nor cared about the football program.
Now, the tailgate lots are cranked to 11, the stadium is loud and full (at least it is early, when I’m taking Instagram photos), and the campus is genuinely invested in the success of the program. I get that there are sorority girls who think that the main goal of tailgate is to wear a cute maxi dress and find out what parties are going on that night, but we’re never going to win that crowd over, anyway. For the most part, things are going pretty well over in Football Land, and I enjoy looking around and reflecting on where we’ve come from, and where we still have to go.
Jack: Taking it all in. Bridgeforth is a special place in not just FCS but all college football. When this team is good the stadium fills and gets loud. Fans are into it and it is rockin. That’s all I can really say though since I have only really attended a game as a fan once, since I was in the marching band my freshman year and then worked for Athletics Communications for the next three.
Who wins Saturday? Share a prediction.
Bennett: JMU wins 28-10 in a game defined by tough defense. I like the Dukes to run the ball well and keep New Hampshire’s offense at bay.
Chase: JMU 34, UNH 10. This isn’t just a Fuck You game for DiNucci and the upperclassmen; this is a national statement game, coming off of a bye, with Weber at their heels in the polls. To their infinite credit, UNH has found a way to win games and stay competitive in the CAA despite setbacks they never should have had to deal with. (We hope Coach McDonnell gets well soon.) But this is a team that was handled early by Villanova last week, before the UNH defense shut the door after halftime. It’s also a team that couldn’t break 10 points in Newark. As we’re all aware, JMU’s defense is quite a bit better than UD.
JMU comes out of the bye focused and blows it open right after halftime. The Dukes are gearing up for the stretch run, and it starts here.
Jack: JMU wins easily. The defense will shut down the UNH offense and we will get into a slug fest. The Dukes will run 50+ and pass about 15. Final score JMU 24 UNH 3.