Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications
By Bennett Conlin
JMU has a path to the College Football Playoff.
Thursday, news broke that the College Football Playoff is expanding to 12 teams in 2024. The current format includes just four teams, and Cincinnati is the only Group of Five program to make the playoff field. The Bearcats earned the No. 4 seed a season ago.
Here’s the upcoming playoff format, per CBS Sports: “The expanded 12-team bracket will feature the six highest-ranked conference champions as automatic qualifiers along with the next six highest-ranked teams. The four highest-ranked conference champions will be seeded 1-4 with first-round byes. The next four highest-ranked teams (Nos. 5-8) will host the first-round matchups.”
The six highest-ranked conference champions earning automatic bids into the field essentially means the Group of Five receives access to the College Football Playoff in 2024. It’ll likely only be one bid, but with the American weakening due to the upcoming departures of Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF, there’s a legitimate path for future Sun Belt champions to make the College Football Playoff.
So yes, JMU has a path to the College Football Playoff.
Let’s pump the brakes
It’s thrilling that JMU is going from playing in the FCS to having a chance to play in the same postseason event as Alabama, Georgia, and Michigan. That’s a massive step up in a short period of time.
But the Dukes’ path to a playoff berth is still incredibly challenging.
JMU looked awesome in Year 1 of the Sun Belt. The Dukes have impressive facilities and a competent administration. The future of the program is bright.
But it’s hard to win the Sun Belt!
Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina, and Marshall are all quality programs with tremendous potential, and they’re all inside JMU’s division. They’ll have their sight sets on winning the Sun Belt and qualifying for the CFP, too. Old Dominion sits in a talent rich portion of Virginia. If the Monarchs make strides and start landing local recruits, the program could quickly become a SBC contender.
Georgia State and Georgia Southern each have potential, and the SBC West has plenty of talented programs that care about future success.
That doesn’t even begin to address other Group of Five leagues.
The Mountain West still has San Diego State, Boise State, and Fresno State, among others. The American still has SMU, Tulane, East Carolina, and Memphis, among others. Heck, even C-USA has a Liberty program with an excess of resources. And who knows, maybe a MAC team catches fire one season and works its way into the top 20.
It’s hard to sit atop the Group of Five. It’s also hard to retain players and coaches in this era of college football, as every time JMU reaches a new level of FBS success, Power Five programs will try to poach JMU coaches and players in the offseason. That’s the reality of college football these days, and it makes the situation for Group of Five programs fluid. A great team one season can quickly turn into a program without its five best players and coaching staff.
JMU making the College Football Playoff looks possible, but it’s not a probable annual occurrence.
I believe JMU can make the College Football Playoff in future seasons, but that shouldn’t be the program’s “standard,” especially in the next 5-10 years. Contending for the Sun Belt East should be the program’s goal in the immediate future, even if that means going 7-5 or 8-4.
JMU has never even played in an FBS bowl game yet. The program needs some time to grow and mature, even after a stellar 8-3 record this season. There are so many non-playoff accomplishments the Dukes can achieve.
I’m hopeful that JMU having access to the College Football Playoff doesn’t skew the fan perspective of the program. Beating App State, ODU, Marshall, and Coastal Carolina should matter, even if the Dukes are 4-4 when they’re doing it.
When JMU beat Old Dominion this season, the Dukes became 6-3 after the victory. ODU moved to 3-7. By no means was it a nationally relevant matchup. Yet the in-game atmosphere was rowdy, and each set of fans clearly cared about the outcome.
Before the game, the guys over at the JMU Sports Blog wrote, “It doesn’t have to mean anything to anyone else when it means everything to those involved.”
It’s easy to dream about the future. Fans, players, coaches, and administrations should dream, but it’s also important to enjoy the present. The Dukes have a good football program, and they’re going to face off against regional peers for years to come.
JMU plays at UVA next season. The game matters to the fans involved, even though it likely won’t have any playoff impact. There are going to be a lot of JMU games in future seasons that won’t matter from a national title perspective, but that shouldn’t diminish fan enjoyment.
JMU being in the mix for the College Football Playoff will be incredible (and I genuinely think it will happen), but I enjoyed this JMU football season about as much as any in recent memory, and the Dukes weren’t even eligible for the postseason.
Potential access to the CFP is fantastic news, but it isn’t everything when it comes to JMU football’s future success.