A Sleeping Giant Awakened: James Madison’s Window To FCS Titles Might Be Open Awhile

FARGO — I wrote a blog back in early December about North Dakota State’s “window” to win Football Championship Subdivision national titles being open longer than every other team in the division. My thesis was based on the idea that the Bison would have a challenger to their throne for a year or two, usually based on a couple of top-flight players, but that team would inevitably drop back while NDSU stayed strong. Bison coach Chris Klieman later referenced this same idea in a press conference as he extolled NDSU’s remarkable and perhaps never-to-be-matched five straight national championships.

You can read my earlier blog here: NDSU’s window has stayed open longer than most.

The Bison’s run ended last season in the playoff semifinals against James Madison, a team that went on to win the national title in Frisco, Texas, against Youngstown State. The Dukes were the better team, holding off a talented if banged-up Bison team in front of a deafening Fargodome crowd. James Madison was the best team in FCS and deserved to be national champions.

QB Bryan Schor returns for James Madison in 2017 after leading the Dukes to a national title last year.

Here’s what will make things interesting for 2017 and the seasons beyond: The Dukes are going to have some staying power.

This was not a one- or two-hit wonder making a run at a national championship.

James Madison is built for the long haul in several ways. Its “window” should be open for the foreseeable future.

Not surprisingly, the Dukes are not backing away from that idea.

“Last time I checked, a lot of them (players) are coming back next year, and we’ve talked about that we’ve got great expectations after we finish celebrating this championship,” Dukes head coach Mike Houston said immediately after the title game. “So hopefully JMU’s here to stay.”

I believe so. Here are a few reasons why:

  • Talent. It was clear seeing James Madison at the Fargodome in person and on TV several times last season that the Dukes are good and they are deep. They were the most talented team in FCS last season and while they lose some key players, they return a ton. And the talent is spread among classes. Sound like a familiar formula to FCS titles, Bison fans?
  • Coaching. The Dukes underachieved for years under previous head coaches Mickey Matthews and Everett Withers. After winning a title in 2004, the Dukes made only one serious run at a title. Mike Houston changed that. He was able to harness all that talent into a title team, something Matthews and Withers were unable to do for more than a decade.
  • Recruiting. Virginia and the surrounding states are a talent-rich area and James Madison should have no problem picking off top-level FCS talent every year. The Dukes are seen as the third option in Virginia behind Virginia Tech and Virginia for Division I players. This year, it looks like James Madison cleaned up by netting 10 of the top 30-35 recruits in the Colonial Athletic Association.
  • Money. James Madison is the highest funded athletic department among FCS schools. The department has an overall budget of about $42 million, ranking it 61st among all Division I schools. NDSU has a budget of around $22 million, for comparison. Athletic director Jeff Bourne did not hesitate to sign Houston to a contract extension with a raise after the Dukes won the title. Money is not an issue in Harrisonburg.
  • Facilities. James Madison has one of the best stadiums in FCS and draws about 23,000 fans per game. It is NDSU-like fan support.
  • Fan base. In addition to drawing fans to home games, the Dukes have a nationwide alumni base that supports football. That was evident in the following that showed up in Frisco for the championship. It wasn’t Bison-like, but it was pretty good.
  • Tradition. James Madison is a great football school with two national titles and, despite underachieving for the past decade or so, has a strong history on which to draw.
  • Defense. The Dukes play defense. Period. There are other FCS schools that put up a ton of points and win a lot of regular season and early-round playoff games, but peter out against physical teams that play defense. Eastern Washingon and Sam Houston State come immediately to mind. James Madison plays both sides of the ball very well, plus Houston demands good special teams play.

That’s a checklist that should look familiar in Fargo. James Madison could be another NDSU in FCS. That’s not to say the Dukes are going to win five straight titles, but they have all the pieces to make serious runs at Frisco every year.

“Houston was the right guy at the right time to take over a program that had talent, but for whatever reason couldn’t put it all together down the stretch run or in the postseason before he got there,” said Greg Madia, the beat writer from the Harrisonburg Daily News-Record who covers the team. “As long as Houston and his staff stay at the school, JMU should compete to win the CAA every year and if they can win the CAA, it should be able to compete for a national championship.”

The remarkable thing about James Madison is how under-the-radar the program was until last year. And even leading up to the playoffs last season, all the talk centered around the Bison, Sam Houston State and Eastern Washington. James Madison was highly-seeded and highly-regarded, but it hadn’t done anything in the postseason in recent years to warrant much buzz.

The Dukes came to Fargo in 2011 for a playoff game, but it was unremarkable and JMU wasn’t heard from again while the Bison kept seeing Sam Houston, South Dakota State and others in the playoffs.

After winning the championship in 2004, the Dukes missed the playoffs in 2005. Then it lost in the first round in 2006 and ’07.

A run to the semifinals in 2008 followed, but from 2009 to 2015 the Dukes made the playoff field only three times and never advanced past the second round. That, of course, is basically the same stretch of years when NDSU went from FCS newbie to kings of the division.

“The doldrums started with the 2009 season. For a handful of years, three to four, the Dukes didn’t have consistency at quarterback,” said Craig Haley, senior editor at STATS FCS. “Mickey Matthews wasn’t shy about being critical of the position, which probably didn’t help the situation.

“Mike Houston talked openly last season of inheriting a divided locker room — the defense felt all the credit would go to the offense of the Vad Lee teams. I’m thinking it was a program with excellent individual talent that was a bit selfish.”

The Dukes schedule smartly, which helps in the solid CAA. James Madison schedules two patsy home games and goes on the road for an FBS paycheck game. You’ll not see many risky FCS non-conference games on the Dukes’ schedule. That helps keep them fresh for conference games and the postseason.

Also, and this is a big one, James Madison should be set at quarterback for years. Star QB Bryan Schor returns as a senior in 2017 and then there should be competition in 2018 between Cole Johnson and new recruit Gage Moloney. Johnson filled in for Schor last season when Schor got hurt at Villanova.

Moloney appears to be a stud. He was Mr. Football of South Carolina and played at the same high school as ex-Tennessee QB Justin Worley and current Oklahoma State QB Mason Rudolph. Moloney committed to Ohio University before flipping and signing with James Madison after an on-campus visit. You can watch some of his high school highlights on his Hudl site by clicking here.

It appears as if a sleeping giant in FCS has been awakened. It should make for some very entertaining future seasons with NDSU continuing to be strong, Eastern Washington continuing to load up on West Coast talent, Sam Houston State being offensively talented, South Dakota State returning tons of talent to a quarterfinal team.

As always injuries, a coaching change, a scandal — many things — could knock the Dukes off the rails. And, as we’ve said many times about the Bison’s run, it takes a million things to fall into place just right to win a title. But it sure looks like James Madison has all the pieces to make deep playoff runs year after year.

“We have something very special here,” Bourne, the JMU athletic director, said to the Harrisonburg newspaper. “We have a great team coming back next year and feel great about the program overall, especially when you compare it to other schools that struggle to get fans to games and don’t have the average crowd attendance we do.”