The Argument for (and against) JMU Football as a National Title Contender

Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications

By Bennett Conlin

I’ve seen significant chatter (I scroll through Twitter regularly) in recent days and weeks about JMU’s football’s flaws.

“The Dukes can’t score! The Dukes really can’t score in the red zone!”

“The defense looks great, but against third-string QBs …”

“I’m not sure Cole Johnson is the guy.”

While I don’t agree with a significant amount of the takes surrounding JMU’s flaws, I understand the logic. JMU has looked anything but dominant in recent weeks. The Dukes even dropped a home game to Villanova earlier this month.

The offense has two touchdowns in the last two games. That’s a concern. There are valid concerns with this team as it nears November.

Let’s check out the case for and against JMU as a national title contender, as both arguments have merit.

Argument: JMU isn’t a national title contender

The case against JMU as a national title contender starts with the offense. The Dukes have two offensive touchdowns in the last 10 quarters of football. That’s bad.

Quarterback Cole Johnson and wide receiver Antwane Wells Jr. were red hot in opening weeks. Wells Jr. caught five TD passes in JMU’s first three games. He hasn’t caught a touchdown in the last four games. Johnson threw 14 of his 15 touchdown passes in the first four games.

And where’s the running game? JMU is averaging 4.5 yards per carry this fall. It’s a decent number, but it was inflated by strong early season performances. The Dukes haven’t eclipsed 200 rushing yards since running for 395 against Morehead State in the season opener.

For a team committed to running the ball, that’s alarming. JMU has yet to run for 200 yards against a conference foe. It’s not for a lack of trying, either. JMU has run the ball at least 45 times in three CAA games.

The offense simply hasn’t been good in recent weeks, as both the passing attack and running game leave plenty to be desired. Some of that responsibility falls on a banged up offensive line.

The defense, on the other hand, has been good. Heck, it’s been great. But against who?

JMU defeated Morehead State and Maine in the first two weeks of the season, and Maine’s starting quarterback suffered an injury in that game. In JMU’s third game, Weber State was without its starting quarterback.

New Hampshire’s offense sputtered against JMU, as the Dukes were strong defensively. Later dominant showings against Richmond and Delaware were against backup quarterbacks, though.

When JMU faced a top-tier quarterback, Villanova’s Daniel Smith, the Dukes lost 28-27. Smith passed for 258 yards and a score, while adding another 35 yards and a touchdown with his legs.

Is JMU’s defense the best in the nation … or is it solid but inflated by subpar competition?

There’s no denying that JMU is a good team, but there’s a difference between being a good team and a national title contender. Offensive woes and defensive uncertainty make this team a likely quarterfinal participant, but don’t buy tickets to Frisco.

Argument: JMU is a national title contender

I fall into this category. I’m still bullish on this team, even if the on-field product has told a different story in recent weeks.

JMU’s offense is scoring a touchdown on 48% of its red-zone trips. That’s bad, but it can’t get much worse. JMU defeated Richmond and Delaware by an average of 14 points despite only scoring two offensive touchdowns across the two games. That’s absurd.

The most important aspect of JMU’s red-zone woes for me is that JMU reaches the “red area,” as head coach Curt Cignetti likes to call it. If the Dukes were going three-and-out every drive and punting, I’d be worried about the offense.

That’s not the case. JMU knocked home four field goals in the win over Richmond, in addition to the touchdown. Against Delaware, JMU hit five field goals. In the last two games, JMU has 11 scoring drives. Unfortunately for the Dukes, only two of those drives ended in the end zone.

I’m concerned by the lack of touchdowns, but I trust Cignetti and the coaching staff to figure out those problems. JMU’s offense isn’t broken, it’s just struggling in the red zone.

Defensively, JMU has benefitted from facing multiple backup quarterbacks. That’s obvious. At the same time, this defensive unit is legit.

Yes, Villanova scored 28 points against JMU. The Wildcats also rank 15th nationally in scoring offense, averaging 34.6 points per game. They’re one of the best teams in the FCS, and JMU lost by a point.

JMU ranks sixth nationally in scoring defense, allowing just 14.7 points per contest. The Dukes have talent defensively, and I’m impressed with recent play from safety MJ Hampton. He missed games earlier this fall due to injury. Back in the mix, he’s made an immediate impact.

The defensive line, led by an absurd 10.5 tackles for loss from Towson transfer Bryce Carter, is deep and gifted. Mike Greene is rounding into form after early season injury, recording four tackles for loss over the last two games.

JMU’s defense, even if aided by playing poor quarterbacks, is one of the best defenses in the country.

Specials teams has been fine, with JMU ranking in the top 25 nationally in kickoff returns and kickoff return coverage. The team’s net punting is 33rd nationally, and kicker Ethan Ratke is 18-20 on field goals. He’s 32-34 on field goals since the start of the 2020 season. His two misses came at an unfortunate time for the Dukes, but he’s about as automatic as a kicker gets.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there isn’t a dominant FCS team this season. I was high on South Dakota State after the team’s hot start. The Jackrabbits now sit with two losses, and they’re in a battle to earn a seed.

North Dakota State is undefeated, but the Bison’s passing offense ranks 110th nationally. NDSU averages fewer than 150 passing yards per game. That’s not an ideal recipe to win in the postseason.

Sam Houston State, the reigning national champion, is undefeated. The Bearkats also haven’t played a daunting schedule, and they may enter the postseason unprepared to face the best teams in the country. This JMU team also held a significant lead at SHSU in the spring season before collapsing. The Dukes aren’t a lock to beat SHSU, but they’re certainly capable.

Eastern Washington, an offensive juggernaut, recently fell to Weber State.

JMU isn’t the national title favorite, but the Dukes have the pieces to remain in the hunt. A few offensive improvements should have JMU among the top candidates to win the championship.

The bottom line

JMU is flawed. The offense has red-zone issues, and the defense has beaten up on iffy foes. There’s room to improve in all three phases.

The other top FCS teams are also flawed, though. I’m not counting JMU out just yet, especially against other teams working through their own issues.

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