Will the FBS addition of the James Madison football affect Virginia, VT?

James Madison football is joining the FBS ranks this fall, a year earlier than initially anticipated. The Dukes will compete as members of the Sun Belt Conference after years of success at Division I FCS level. After the official announcement in February, the school released its 2022 football schedule, which features five home games against FBS opponents and a full set of Sun Belt Conference games.

As a public university in Harrisonburg, Va. with an enrollment of more than 22,000 students, the Dukes could have an impact on in-state ACC schools such as Virginia and Virginia Tech.

James Madison finished the 2021 season with a 12-2 record and an appearance in the FCS semifinals – the third straight season in which it has advanced that far in the playoffs. The Dukes have finished with four seasons of 12 or more wins since 2016, which was the year that James Madison won the FCS national title.

That 2016 Dukes squad knocked off the perennial FCS juggernaut North Dakota State in the semifinals before defeating Youngstown State in the championship game for the program’s second national title (JMU also won in 2004).

Two James Madison players have heard their names called at the NFL Draft in the previous three years: cornerback Jimmy Moreland by the Washington Commanders in 2019 and quarterback Ben DiNucci by the Dallas Cowboys in 2020.

By drawing more than 18,000 fans per game in 2019, James Madison was attracting more fans to its home games at Bridgeforth Stadium (capacity 25,000) than 27 other FBS schools.

Head coach Curt Cignetti has compiled a 33-5 win-loss record in just three seasons on the job at James Madison. He and the top two assistants – offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan and defensive coordinator Bryant Haines – came to James Madison from Elon University, an FCS school in North Carolina.

The rise of James Madison to college football’s highest level now gives the state of Virginia its fifth FBS team in addition to Virginia, Virginia Tech, Old Dominion, and Liberty.

Virginia Tech has been the state’s flagship college football program. The Hokies were contenders on the national stage under longtime head coach Frank Beamer, collecting wins in the Orange Bowl and the Sugar Bowl and compiling six 11-win seasons under his watch.

With “Beamer Ball,” the Hokies cracked the AP Top 10 in 14 different seasons as members of the Big East and the ACC. After a lackluster stretch under Justin Fuente from 2016 until last season, Virginia Tech hired Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry as its new boss for this fall.

Virginia, though a power conference team, has been more mediocre than good. The Cavaliers haven’t finished a season ranked in the AP Top 25 since 2004, and the program has had only four winning seasons since 2007.

Other recent FBS additions

Other teams have recently paved the way for James Madison football’s success in joining the FBS, the top level of Division I college football.

Central Florida joined the FBS in 1996 and won 10 or more games six times in a decade-long stretch from 2010 to 2019. The Knights went 13-0 in 2017 and had a legitimate claim to winning the national championship.

11 UCF players have been drafted by NFL teams in the past four seasons. The program has become one of the most respected “Group of Five” teams during its time with the American Athletic Conference, but UCF is headed to the Big 12 soon.

The University of Texas at San Antonio joined the FBS as recently as 2012. In just their first decade of top-flight action, the Roadrunners have reached some impressive heights. In 2021, the team reached the No. 15 ranking in the Top 25 after an 11-0 start to the season (including wins against Memphis and the Big Ten’s Illinois), finishing with a 12-2 record.

It may be no accident that the newfound success of Knights and the Roadrunners as proverbial college football outsiders has occurred along with the remarkable demise of big-time programs in the same state: Florida State, Miami, and Florida and Texas, respectively.

Florida State has fallen to some notable lows for a program that has recently won a national title. The Seminoles have cycled through three head coaches in the past five years and haven’t had a winning season since 2017.

Texas, too, is one of college football’s blue bloods with Heisman Trophy winners and national title-winning teams to its name, yet the Longhorns have finished with four losing seasons in the past eight years. For all of the five-star talent that has come through Austin, Texas has finished in the AP Top 25 only four times since 2010.

The plights of Florida State and Texas are more complicated than simply pointing to the success of UCF and UTSA – but it’s an important piece of that puzzle.

51 football players on James Madison’s current roster hail from the state of Virginia. If the Dukes are able to build on their success at the FCS level, the in-state competition for recruits, attention, and resources with the Cavaliers and the Hokies may come at a cost to Virginia’s two power conference schools.

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