First, I want to thank the Miz for giving me the floor for a column. I suspect that this will be fairly different from his writing because I think the fan experience is different between rooting for a Div I-A school and rooting for a Div I-AA school. I’m going to avoid using the terms BCS/FBS and FCS for the same reason I avoid calling National Airport “Reagan”; I’m so used to the old way of saying things that until there’s a reason that it makes sense to call it something else, I’ll continue to do so.
I went to JMU for my undergraduate and graduate work, seven years total. When I first came to JMU, football games were an excuse to see the band. In his first year at JMU (1999), coach Mickey Matthews led the Dukes to their first I-AA playoff game (a loss to Troy in the first round). The following four years, the beginning of my stretch at JMU, the Dukes went 19-27 including the linguistically embarassing distinction of finishing 11th in the Atlantic 10 in 2001. However since then, the Dukes have gone 49-15 and made the playoffs four out of five years (including winning the I-AA National Championship in 2004).
Since the A-10’s football division went defunct prior to the 2007 season, the Dukes have played in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA). For five out of the past six years, the National Championship game has included a team that’s currently a member of the CAA (Delaware twice, JMU, UMASS, and Richmond). In three of those years, a member of the CAA has won it; Delaware in 2003, JMU in 2004, and Richmond in 2008 (the other three were won by Appalachian State from 2005 to 2007). Five of the sixteen teams in last year’s playoffs were from the CAA and four of the top ten in the rankings as of this writing are from the CAA.
All of this is just to say that the CAA is arguably the toughest division in I-AA football. And while the gap between I-A and I-AA is still considerable, there are signs that that gap is narrowing. This weekend, three CAA teams beat three I-A teams with Villanova beating Temple, William & Mary topping Virginia, and Richmond beating Duke. Obviously none of the defeated teams will be mistaken for world beaters, but even victories over the lesser teams in I-A show that the gap between the two divisions is creeping smaller.
The CAA is split into two divisions: the North and the South. Each team plays all of the other teams in their division, along with three of the teams in the other division. JMU starts the year ranked #6 in the preseason polls and will play every team in the South division (Delaware, #2 Richmond, Towson, #5 Villanova, #14 William & Mary), along with three teams from the North: #24 Hofstra, #18 UMASS, and #19 Maine. The out of conference schedule includes hosting VMI (Big South conference, finished 4-7 last year), playing at Liberty (Big South, finished 10-2 last year), and starting the season at Maryland (ACC, finished last year 8-5).
Had you asked me before this past weekend about my thoughts on the coming game against Maryland, I would’ve said that while it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility that JMU could beat them, I didn’t like our chances. JMU has had a bad record against Div I-A teams, winning only three games in the course of their existence against a Div I-A opponent: Navy (twice, in 1989 and 1990) and Virginia (in 1982). Maryland and JMU played once before, in 1998, with the Terps winning 23-15. However, since the CAA has more than shown up for its games against the ACC so far this season, and since Maryland got blown out in its season opener against Cal, who’s to say that JMU won’t break through next weekend? I certainly like our chances better than I did.
The biggest question for the Dukes as the season begins is how the team will deal with the graduation of Rodney Landers, last year’s quarterback and face of the team. He got injured in the season ending loss to Montana, which allowed Drew Dudzik to show how he would play with the first team offense. While the Dukes came up short, Dudzik looked promising in his time on the field. However, it appears that Matthews is still deciding whether Dudzik will take the reigns or whether freshman Justin Thorpe will take over as starting quarterback. The Daily News Record reports that it is likely that both quarterbacks will play at Maryland and possibly farther into the season, until one player plays his way into being the starter.
While JMU fought its way to a 12-2 record last year (including playoff games), it also received several breaks throughout the year. That’s not to say that they were not earned, but they were the type of plays that can make or break a season (depending on which side you end up on). From Scotty McGee’s return TD at the end of the Richmond game, to the last second Hail Mary in the drizzle at Villanova, JMU found ways to win in incredible circumstances, to holding off Appalachian State at home by using a quick punt to run out the clock, JMU ended up on the right side of many of the season’s breaks. For many of these moments, because JMU is a I-AA school, you either had to be in person for the game, had to listen to an internet radio stream, or hope that Comcast carried the game in lieu of something else. The lack of distribution in some instances made it so only the faithful could keep up with the Dukes (as I’m sure is true for other I-AA schools nationwide).
But changes and breaks withstanding, I believe it’ll be another good season for the Dukes. The program has been successful on a long-term stretch and finds ways to win in tough moments. Based on the strength of schedule (playing a Div I-A team and six ranked teams), I’d guess that the Dukes will go 8-3 and find their way into the playoffs as a wild card. At that point, anything could happen. If it sounds like I’m hedging my bets on the prediction, I probably am. The majority of the information I can find about new players is through the Daily News Record (Harrisonburg’s local paper). National media sources have no reason to pay attention to the team because the majority of their users will have no knowledge or care about the Dukes and most other discussion about the team at this point is speculation. It’s up to the team to show up and show us what they’re worth. But because the university has built an excellent program, I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt until they give me reason not to. I’m optimistic about the season and looking forward to seeing how the team does this weekend at Maryland.