Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications
By Bennett Conlin
JMU faced Weber State, Delaware, and Richmond this season. All three of those teams were expected to be big tests, but they instead played without their starting quarterbacks and sputtered offensively.
The Dukes mostly avoided strong signal callers this season, often facing backup quarterbacks or average CAA quarterbacks. Saturday afternoon, they’ll face a stud quarterback.
Cole Kelley, the veteran quarterback for Southeastern Louisiana (SELA), will be the best quarterback to face the Dukes this season. Kelley is the real deal.
Standing at 6-feet-7-inches tall, the 260-pound Kelley is an imposing quarterback. He can run (480 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns) and throw (4,727 passing yards and 42 touchdowns). The former four-star recruit and Arkansas quarterback won the 2020 Walter Payton Award, given to the best player in the FCS.
He’s dynamic, and JMU’s defense will need its best to limit Kelley’s success.
Good against good
SELA averages 47.2 points per game, the best mark in the country.
Five players have at least five receiving touchdowns, as SELA spreads it around the offense well. The pass is the team’s focus, as the Lions find most of their yards through the air. SELA mixes in the run well when needed.
SELA’s offense is fantastic.
It’s also worth noting the Lions haven’t played a gauntlet of defensive teams. Every FCS opponent on SELA’s regular season schedule ranked 65th or worst in the FCS in total defense. Total defense (yards allowed per game) isn’t an advanced defensive metric by any means, but the basic stats say SELA beat up on bad defenses.
So is SELA’s offense even good? Or does SELA just benefit from playing bad defenses?
The answer is clear, in my opinion. SELA’s offense is really, really good. ESPN’s SP+ metric has SELA’s offense as the best in the FCS. Yes, even better than Eastern Washington’s offense.
Don’t overlook SELA’s attack because of the schedule.
That doesn’t mean the Lions will score 47 points Saturday, though. JMU’s defense ranks second in total defense, and the Dukes are stacked with defensive talent. SP+ says JMU’s defense ranks 18th at the FCS level. I’d argue that’s low, although JMU has benefited from playing some subpar offenses.
Regardless, JMU has one of the better defenses in the FCS. It’s a defensive unit that’s much better than those SELA typically faces.
Saturday’s game will be a battle between an elite defense (JMU) and an elite offense (SELA). The Dukes have had occasional issues in the secondary, but the team’s defensive line often disrupts opposing passers. Can JMU and the defensive line keep SELA under 30 points or will the Lions pick on the Dukes’ secondary and score 30+?
JMU’s offense is the difference
JMU’s defense is strong. SELA’s offense is strong. That’s easy enough to understand.
On the other side of the ball, however, JMU holds a massive edge. SP+ ranks JMU’s offense 11th in the FCS. SELA’s defense ranks 111th.
In three losses this season, SELA allowed 48.3 points per game. The Lions hung close in their three losses (all came by three points), but the defense let them down.
JMU quarterback Cole Johnson presents a major matchup problem for SELA, which allows the third-most passing yards of any FCS program. The Lions, who struggle to generate stops, have to go on the road and stop wide receivers Antwane Wells Jr. and Kris Thornton? That seems unlikely. The receiving duo has combined for 136 receptions, 1,890 yards, and 22 touchdowns.
Between Johnson and the receivers, the Dukes hold a major edge when they have the football. JMU should go into Saturday with the goal of scoring 50 points. It’s possible, given JMU’s various offensive weapons.
The Dukes’ offense gives JMU a clear edge Saturday.
The bottom line
Led by a potent offense, SELA has a really good football team. The Lions score in bunches, and their quarterback is arguably the best player in the country.
JMU should still be favored. The Dukes are a more complete football team, with game-changing players on offense AND defense. It doesn’t hurt to have the most reliable kicker in the country, either.
Saturday’s game is not a guaranteed victory by any means, which makes sense given it’s the playoffs, but the Dukes are good enough to win by double digits if they play well.