JMU Football Roundtable: Which Bowl Matchups are Most Interesting?

Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications

By Bennett Conlin, Jack Fitzpatrick, Daniel Merriman, and Ben Hofer

Breaking news: There’s still one game left in JMU football’s season!

While the talk around the program has turned to potential new head coaching hires with Curt Cignetti leaving JMU for Indiana, this roundtable discussion focuses on JMU’s on-field performance in 2023 and an outlook at the team’s bowl game.

Cignetti is expected to coach the Dukes in their bowl, and we’ll have plenty of other coverage on the website of Cignetti’s departure. You can also find our latest podcast on the news here.

The Dukes end their regular season 11-1. What stood out to you the most about JMU’s stellar season?

Bennett: JMU’s ability to adapt. The Dukes quickly pivoted from Alonza Barnett to Jordan McCloud at quarterback, and they excelled with their original QB2. They lost both starting offensive tackles and Jalen Green at defensive end throughout the season. They made it work and still went 11-1. I was wildly impressed at the Dukes’ ability to roll with the punches and have an elite season. 

Daniel: The Dukes’ development was incredibly impressive to me. Young players like Elijah Sarratt, Aiden Fisher, D’Angelo Ponds, and Jacob Thomas were not starters at the beginning of this season. However, when called upon they stepped in and stepped up. Throughout the year, these young contributors constantly grew in big moments. For example, the secondary between the UVA game and the Coastal Carolina game looked like two completely different units. Trent Hendrick and Aiden Fisher stepping in against Troy also comes to mind. JMU is set for years to come, barring the transfer portal and NIL working their P5 magic.

Jack: Bennett talked about the Dukes’ ability to adapt in terms of adjusting when players were lost with injury. I want to talk about JMU’s ability to adapt in philosophy. The bye week is a time in this season I will always remember. At that time the coaching staff looked in the mirror and realized the way they were calling games was the issue. Coming out of the bye week, they changed it all. Curt Cignetti, Tino Sunseri and Mike Shanahan began to trust Jordan McCloud more and put the ball in his hands. They took the ball away from the running game and were more willing to throw the rock. That ability to change mid way through the season was a major reason the Dukes ended up 11-1 this season. 

Ben: Two words: Jalen Green. I don’t think enough people realize that Jalen Green was outpacing some former Heisman candidates, and obviously on pace to break the single-season sack record of 20 sacks. Green finished with 15.5 sacks, while only playing nine games. Even though his season was cut short, he had already surpassed former NFL players like Carl Nassib and Alex Highsmith, and only one sack shy of recent Heisman hopeful Chase Young. The timing of the injury could not have been worse, Green was set up to be a potential NFL Draft pick for the Dukes. However, it is still important that we recognize his achievement as an all-time great Duke.

What was your favorite moment of the Dukes’ regular season?

Bennett: Some great options to choose from here, and I’ll take the atmosphere for JMU-App State. The College GameDay crowd was historically large, and the in-game atmosphere was the best I’ve ever experienced at a JMU home game. The Dukes lost the game, but the rivalry was alive and well and the weekend atmosphere was special. I’ll remember that for a while. 

Daniel: My favorite memory from this season has to be the Dukes taking over Scott Stadium. After a nasty rain delay, the Dukes proceeded to complete a fourth quarter comeback and beat the supposed flagship university in the state of Virginia. The highs and the lows of this game live in my mind perpetually. By far, the most joy I’ve ever felt from JMU winning a game. Especially being from the Commonwealth, this game will be treasured by me for a very long time.

Jack: I have to agree with Daniel and say that UVA game. From the 14-0 start for the Dukes to UVA coming back and shredding the defense with ease it looked like all was lost. Then a massive rain storm rolled in and allowed the Dukes to reset and in the final minutes of the fourth quarter JMU played the perfect game in order to steal a win from the jaws of defeat. Honorable mention, the Georgia State game. Had an awesome tailgate and watching JMU demolish Georgia State at their place when there was more purple than blue there was epic.

Ben: I completely agree with Bennett, but I’ll take a different approach. Forget College Gameday, I thought the App State game was absolutely electric. Even in a heartbreaking loss, the fourth quarter comeback was one of the most magical things I’ve experienced at JMU. Not a single person left when the Dukes were faced with a 4th and 18, to which Jordan McCloud calmly converted. The atmosphere was alive and well, and it felt like the comeback was inevitable to many in the stands. As soon as the game ended, I was sad at first but then I realized how special of an atmosphere I had just experienced and I’m hopeful that Bridgeforth and the fans will share many more moments like that.

Editor’s note: Thanks to Three Notch’d Brewing for their advertising support this season.

Who is your JMU football regular season MVP?

Bennett: Jordan McCloud. From QB2 to one of the best quarterbacks in the Sun Belt? McCloud’s development was noticeable, and he may enter 2024 as the starting quarterback on a team with College Football Playoff aspirations. 

What a year for McCloud, who has 3,400 passing yards and another 300 rushing yards entering bowl season. The man scored 40 total touchdowns in 12 games! Stud.

Daniel: The Dukes had an automatic first down this year, his name was Elijah Sarratt. Curt Cignetti was quoted multiple times this year saying if he needed a clutch catch, Sarratt was his man. This was proven in the App State contest when Elijah caught three consecutive catches in the fourth quarter to force overtime. He has been the Dukes most consistent playmaker since he was introduced into the starting lineup. In 8 games as a starter, he averaged 111 yards per game and a TD per contest. The former FCS product is the real deal. 

Jack: Jordan McCloud. Not only is he the JMU MVP but he is the Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year. He is the only QB to rank in the top 2 of every statistical category this season and he did it all after not taking QB1 reps in camp. He stepped in and led JMU to an amazing 11-1 record and was clinical week in and week out (I have blocked out the App State game).

I will say another honorable mention, Jalen Green. Green still leads the FBS with 15.5 sacks and he was on pace to break a lot of records this season. We saw the defensive line take a step back in the final few games of the season without his dominating presence out there and what he did this season won’t ever be forgotten by JMU fans. 

Ben: As much as I want to say Jalen Green, for producing insane numbers, Jordan McCloud is the only option here. He was the heart and soul of the team. He contributed in the numbers category but also was the toughest guy on the field during the Marshall game, where he seemed to sustain an injury but played through it to win the game. Throughout the entire year, the player who helped the dukes to win the most was Jordan “Money” McCloud.

JMU will play in a bowl game. Which team would you like to see the Dukes face in bowl season?

Bennett: While a Power Five opponent would be electric, I’d love to see JMU play another solid Group of Five team. Facing Liberty, Memphis, or Toledo would provide the Dukes with a stiff test against a quality opponent from a different Group of Five league. I’d most like to see JMU-Liberty, for the in-state rivalry. I think the game would be winnable and entertaining, an ideal combination for bowl season. 

Daniel: I’d love to see JMU take on plenty of opponents, P5 or otherwise. Some of Bennett’s suggestions to play programs like Liberty or Toledo would be incredibly competitive. However, I think UCF, West Virginia, and Virginia Tech would be my favorite choices. VT in particular would be an extremely fun game. The Hokies pushed back their date with destiny to 2026 when JMU and VT will play in the regular season. I’d like to see a preview of what that beatdown would look like. 

Jack: This is a boring answer. I truly couldn’t care less about who the Dukes play. I am more worried about the bowl. I want a bowl game in a place I can travel to without breaking the bank. Give me a fun atmosphere with JMU fans and I don’t care who we play. It could be the worst bowl eligible MAC team, or CUSA team. It could be a Power 5 team. I really don’t care. It is AWESOME we are playing in a bowl. 

Ben: I’d like to see JMU face a quality P5 opponent to put a bow on the incredible year, and earn some much needed credibility after the App State loss. Or, I’d be happy with a regional opponent like Virginia Tech or Liberty. Preferably in my home state of Florida or within driving distance of Virginia! #TheyLetJMUBowl

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