Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications
By Bennett Conlin
Ahhh realignment season!
Thanks to Texas and Oklahoma planning to bolt to the SEC, realignment discussion has once again consumed the college sports world.
Given that today was CAA Media Day for JMU football, I felt the urge to write about where the Dukes may fall in future realignment discussions. There’s just something about remembering the CAA’s blemishes that makes me think about a brighter future for the Dukes.
Worth noting this is mostly a fun thought exercise. I haven’t looked deeply into conference agreements, finances, etc. All of that is important in actual realignment discussions.
But we’re blogging today, friends.
Could JMU stay in the CAA?
Yes. Life in the CAA isn’t thaaaat bad.
The Dukes play in a top-tier FCS conference. Aside from the MVFC, it really doesn’t get any better in terms of football performance. While JMU’s Olympic sport programs typically punch well above their CAA counterparts, winning CAA titles hasn’t completely taken the Dukes out of the national picture.
JMU softball contended for a national title this year out of the CAA, and the lacrosse program recently won a national title as a CAA squad. Those events might be “in spite of” the CAA, but the league hasn’t completely squashed JMU’s chances of being competitive nationally, even if it doesn’t often help.
Winning the CAA also means an NCAA Tournament bid, and several JMU programs have proven good enough to win the league and perform admirably in NCAA action. That’s not a bad setup.
Geographic ties also make sense in the CAA. Matchups with William & Mary, Delaware, Towson and Elon are all within driving distance. Richmond isn’t an all-sport CAA member, but the football connection works well. The same goes for Villanova.
Why should JMU leave the CAA?
The Dukes carry the league.
JMU is the best athletic program in the league, and the Dukes have outgrown the competition. The conference-wide commitment to athletics pales in comparison to JMU. The Dukes often boast significantly better teams, and facilities, than their CAA peers.
FloSports shows just how little the CAA cares about fans and building its athletic brands. The pricey subscription service is required to watch most CAA sporting events. Several FCS leagues have better streaming deals. The pricing model, poor production from other CAA schools and lack of additional programming on FloSports keeps casual JMU fans from following some of the school’s teams closely. That’s a shame.
If JMU wants to become a more relevant athletic program nationally, leaving the CAA makes a ton of sense. Imagine a league that challenges the softball program or sends multiple men’s and women’s basketball teams into the NCAA Tournament. Sounds nice!
Should JMU consider the Sun Belt or Conference USA?
In their current format? Maybe not. Jumping for the Sun Belt or CUSA would add an increase in competition in most sports, but the geographic ties/potentially intriguing matchups are hit or miss.
Playing teams like Appalachian State and Coastal Carolina in football would be a blast to compete against in the Sun Belt. But do Texas State and South Alabama make sense as conference peers? Not really.
From a football perspective, playing marquee FBS nonconference games would be cool and more possible in the Sun Belt or CUSA, but it’s hard to say that consistently playing 2-3 early season games against Power 5 peers beats the opportunity to win an FCS national title. I may argue for those FBS showdowns, but someone reading this can just as easily say they prefer contending for titles and annual trips to Frisco.
There is value in the Sun Belt and CUSA, but it’s not drastically different than competing in the CAA from a fan perspective.
What about a new league?
I’m behind this idea.
A league or division with teams JMU, Old Dominion, Charlotte, Liberty, Appalachian State and Marshall seems rather exciting on a weekly basis in multiple sports. Could JMU bring teams like Delaware, W&M, Richmond or Elon with it to a new league?
As a fan, it’s easy to get excited about a league with increased competition AND geographic ties. For JMU, this type of change makes a ton of sense. A new FBS league could actually be surprisingly competitive at the FBS level, perhaps giving the AAC a run for its money as a non-power league with College Football Playoff worthy competitors.
Does this league make a lot of sense for other schools, though? Appalachian State could easily see a league like that as a step down from a football perspective. How would ODU view the new league?
This league makes a ton of sense for JMU (and others) for a variety of reasons, but realignment is rarely an exercise in common sense.
Could JMU join a Power 5 league like the ACC?
Obviously that would be an incredible move for the Dukes. From the ACC’s side, it’s far from a wonderful decision.
For the ACC to add a new member, money matters. That new team would need to bring with it a significant amount of relevance, exposure, money, etc. TV markets aren’t king, but money is essential when it comes to realignment. It’s why Texas carries so much weight, even though the football program has struggled in recent years.
Notre Dame makes sense as a football addition, and the ACC wants Notre Dame. West Virginia is another program that could fit into the ACC plan.
Don’t confuse geographic proximity with the opportunity to join a new league, especially when looking at the Power 5. JMU is close to West Virginia. JMU isn’t an athletic department that drastically improves the ACC. It’s easy to argue JMU would hurt the ACC’s product, especially initially. JMU men’s basketball against Duke, FSU and Virginia would … not good well.
JMU football against Clemson and Miami? Also sounds like a subpar situation for the Dukes.
What about the AAC?
JMU could fit well in the American Athletic Conference. There’s still some reasonable questions about geographic fit, as the league includes squads like Tulsa, UCF, South Florida, Tulane and South Florida.
From a football perspective, it would immediately thrust JMU into FBS relevance. Assuming the College Football Playoff expands to 12, the AAC seems like it’ll be in the mix to put a team into the event regularly.
The AAC offers a step up in competition. Does that matter, though? The AAC needs to extend an invite for JMU to join.
If I’m the AAC and the Big 12 breaks up, I’m trying to steal from the other eight teams left in the league. Imagine the value of adding a program like TCU or Oklahoma State into the AAC.
It’s hard to imagine JMU being a program that catches the leagues eye over some bigger fish. Heck, even Appalachian State offers significant value from a football perspective.
The AAC, as we’ve said before, would be a fantastic landing spot. It doesn’t mean the AAC feels similarly.
The final verdict
There’s still a lot left to shake out in regards to realignment. This realignment cycle likely won’t be the last.
If we’ve learned anything from previous realignment, it’s that we want JMU to be relevant. That can mean winning CAA and FCS titles. Softball and lacrosse have paved a path from the CAA to relevancy.
We also want games with teams near Harrisonburg. When the Dukes play competitive programs within a drive of Harrisonburg, it makes sense for everyone involved.
Here’s to hoping there are a lot of those matchups in the future, whether it’s in the CAA or another league.