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James Madison Fights for Postseason Berth

A record breaking crowd watches JMU take on Appalachian State.
Photo taken by Sean Martino.
A record breaking crowd watches JMU take on Appalachian State. Photo taken by Sean Martino.

James Madison University has experienced remarkable athletic growth within the past decade. The football team won the 2016 FCS National Title along with having two more title game appearances. They have had multiple conference titles, numerous NFL players, and hosted College Gameday three times. Besides football, the women’s basketball and volleyball teams have been staples in the NCAA Tournament. Also, they opened the 113 million dollar Atlantic Union Bank Center where they famously knocked off ACC Men’s Basketball powerhouse, University of Virginia in 2021. The combination of these successes made university leadership decide that it was time to move from the Colonial Athletic Association  (CAA) to the Sun Belt Conference. This move would bring more visibility, revenue, and higher national recognition. 

The most impactful part of this conference move was seen in the football program. The CAA is a Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) conference, while the Sun Belt is a Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) conference. FBS is the highest level of NCAA football and household names such as Alabama, Georgia, and Michigan all compete at the FBS level. FCS is the second tier of NCAA football and contains schools such as University of Richmond and Villanova. This move excited everyone within the program as JMU would now have the opportunity to compete for the coveted College Football Playoff, which expands to 12 teams in 2024.

Mr. Travis Roadcap is a PE coach who has been keeping up with college football within the Shenandoah Valley for many years. He has seen the growth of the JMU program firsthand. He commented on why moving to the Sun Belt was so beneficial.

“The rise of JMU Football has been very impressive. The ability to have three head coaches in a row: Everett Withers, Mike Houston, and Curt Cignetti, who each took the program to a higher level than imagined has been unprecedented. JMU was operating as an FBS team stuck in an FCS conference. They recognized that they could not accomplish any more as an FCS program, and took the jump to the Sun Belt,” said Roadcap.

However, this transition did not come without a cost. In accordance with NCAA guidance, JMU would not be eligible for postseason play in its first two years as a member of the Sun Belt. This barred them from conference title games, bowl games, and the College Football Playoff. This rule is in place to prevent teams from jumping between levels based upon the strength of their team.

JMU became a national story as they had such a strong season. They made a statement when they defeated Virginia’s flagship university, University of Virginia on Sept. 9. The next weekend they defeated the defending Sun Belt champions, Troy.

“These wins surprised people nationally, but anyone who keeps up with the program was not surprised to see these statement victories,” said Roadcap.

After the impressive early season stretch, the Dukes rolled through Sun Belt competition. They dominated teams and were only really challenged by Old Dominion, where they came away with a 30-27 victory. This undefeated record combined with national outrage at the lack of postseason prospects for the Dukes resulted in ESPN’s College Gameday coming to Harrisonburg to feature the Appalachian State game Nov. 18. 26,000 fans packed the campus and welcomed famous television personalities such as Kirk Herbstriet to Harrisonburg. The show featured frequent call outs of the NCAA for barring JMU from postseason play. Although the show was a smashing success, there was still a football game to be played against a formidable Appalachian team. The Dukes played a shaky first half, before eventually falling in an overtime thriller to ruin the undefeated season in front of a record breaking crowd.

Mr. Heath Glass is a PE coach who is very familiar with local college football as he is an Emory and Henry football alumni. He was disappointed, but not surprised with the outcome of the game.

“Lots of credit to Appalachian State for executing their game plan even with all the outside distractions surrounding the game. We will never know for sure but it seems impossible that all the NCAA drama, combined with College Gameday did not affect JMU’s game prep throughout the week,” said Glass.

JMU rebounded to dominate Coastal Carolina to conclude the regular season and clinch the title of the Sun Belt East Division champions, even though they were not permitted to play in the Sun Belt title game. However, the Dukes were selected as a replacement team for a bowl game as there were 82 bowl spots to fill and there were not 82 eligible teams. They will face off against Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl against Air Force Dec. 23.

The face of JMU’s success, head coach Curt Cignetti, resigned from his position Nov. 30. He was announced as the next football coach at Indiana University. He also will be taking the majority of his staff with him. This led to many JMU players entering the transfer portal in recent days, including Sun Belt Player of the Year: Jordan McCloud. This series of events closes an incredibly successful chapter of JMU Football. The 2024 season will feature an entirely new staff along with a very different roster. University administration has vowed to continue to dedicate resources and support as the team vies for a spot in the expanded College Football Playoff next season. 

This season has been an absolute roller coaster for players, coaches, and fans. The UVA win, hosting College Gameday, battling the NCAA, and receiving a bid to the first bowl game in program history has been historic. It is a new chapter as Curt Cignetti departs and next season brings plenty of uncertainty. The Dukes season will conclude in the Armed Forces Bowl against Air Force on Dec. 23 televised on ABC.

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About the Contributor
Sean Martino
Sean Martino, Opinion Editor
Sean Martino is a senior editor in his second year of Journalism. Martino has been a Sports Editor in the past and is now an Opinion Editor. He is looking forward to working with the wonderful Prowler staff for the second year in a row. He enjoys the collaboration and the excitement that comes with being in The Prowler. Martino is a member of the RCHS baseball team and is involved in various other clubs within the school. He likes to spend his free time traveling the hills of Rockbridge County and supporting local eateries such as Don Tequila’s and Cookout. He also considers himself a passionate sports fan, and loves to watch his favorite teams. Following graduation, he is planning to attend a four year university to further his studies. 

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