Who is James Madison? Not your average FCS matchup… Week Four: SMU vs. James Madison (Homecoming)

This week, the SMU Mustangs are taking on an opponent most (if not all) of the SMU-faithful are not very familiar with – the James Madison Dukes.

Hailing from Harrisonburg, Virginia, members of the Colonial Athletic Association of the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), and 2004 national champion, the undefeated, upset-minded Dukes are rolling into Dallas this Saturday.

That’s all the first paragraph of JMU football’s Wikipedia page would tell me. For the full scoop on the Dukes, we have enlisted the help of JMUSportsBlog.com‘s Todd Davis and Rob Abbott to help break them down.

Here’s what they had to say:
(Click here to check out my response on JMUSportsBlog.com)

What are some names SMU fans need to know before James Madison takes the field at Gerald J. Ford Stadium?

First and foremost, QB Vad Lee. The senior is in his second season at JMU after starting for two years at Georgia Tech. Vad wanted a chance to show he could throw the ball too after very productive years in Paul Johnson’s triple option attack and by transferring down he didn’t have to sit out. The timing couldn’t have been better as then Ohio St. D-Coordinator Everett Withers (and former UNC interim Head Coach the year Butch Davis scuttled that program) had heavily recruited North Carolina for Urban Meyer and had a previous relationship with Lee. And wow has he proven he can throw it. He’s a major contender for this year’s Walter Payton Award, the FCS equivalent of the Heisman and is absolutely electric despite the fact he may have had his roughest game as a Duke last week. He’s also been picking his spots on running the ball this year, presumably at the behest of coaches, but we’ve got a feeling he’ll be turned loose in this week.

The Dukes also feature a two-headed rushing attack with the shifty, but bruising Cardon Johnson and the small-but-sneaky-between-the-tackles Khalid Abdullah. On the outside WR Brandon Ravenel and TE Deane Cheatam are Lee’s favorite targets in big situtations.

On the other side of the ball, LB Gage Steele (seriously, how great is that name for a LB?!) makes a ton of plays and CB Taylor Reynolds has truly developed recently after coming to JMU under the previous regime as a highly-recruited QB prospect stolen out of the hometown of one of Madison’s bigger rivals, the Delaware Blue Chickens.

What are the usual expectations results-wise for a James Madison football team?

8-9 wins, playoff berth, at least one playoff win.  One thing you have to understand about JMU though is that prior to 2004, football culture barely existed in Harrisonburg. That’s the year the Dukes won the 1-AA National Championship over Montana and changed everything. Since then, JMU hasn’t had a losing season, we’ve built a new 25,000 seat stadium, been top five in FCS attendance every year, made multiple playoff trips and spent most of the 2008 season at #1 before falling in the semis. In fact, the new expectations were enough to ultimately force a disgruntled fanbase to hold that championship-winning coach accountable for a few mediocre years and lead to the bigger time hire of Everett Withers off of Urban Meyer’s staff. He also brought last year’s OC/playcaller Drew Mehringer with him to install our current offense and you all may be familiar with his early returns calling plays for former boss Tom Hermann at Houston this year.

JMU has averaged 51 ppg in their first three games of the season against FCS opponents. Do you see any reason why that offensive production couldn’t continue against an FBS-level opponent?

We don’t mean this to sound arrogant, but not really. 51 seems like a tall order but given that SMU and Chad Morris run a similar up-tempo, disregard-time-of-possession style, the safe bet seems to be that there will just be too many plays and possessions for both teams to avoid a shootout.

Matt Davis has made great strides in the early season for SMU both through the air and on the ground. How will JMU look to contain the Mustangs dual-threat QB?

Can’t say we’re exactly sure. Davis looks like easily one of the more dangerous players the Dukes will see in the regular season and the biggest missing piece right now is suspended (for four more games) DT Simeyon Robinson. JMU’s run defense has been a pleasant surprise so far but this is a big step up in competition. For the most part, JMU will concede short gains in the passing game and tries to keep things in front of them on the back end. Should be a fascinating matchup given the Morris propensity for the all-go routes that have produced big strikes against heavyweights TCU and Baylor.

Does the buzz about Chad Morris reach all the way to Virginia? How do you feel about what he’s done for the SMU football program during his brief time as head coach?

You bet it does. We’re squarely in ACC country here (we beat Virginia Tech in 2010 – and of course we don’t ever miss a chance to bring that up) and we’re well familiar with what he brought to Clemson the last few years. Sure looks like a great hire so far for a program that seems to be interested in investing (see Brown, L.) at Pony Express levels again after decades in the wilderness.

In my research, I’ve noticed JMU’s helmet game is very strong. SMU is starting to catch up with the rest of the world with alternate jerseys, chrome helmets, etc. – Considering SMU’s patriotic look vs. North Texas two weeks ago, whose uniform game is more on point right now? 

Haha, great question! I know this won’t be popular given a certain neighboring school down there, but we do purple and we do it big and for that reason we just can’t go against the stunning purple chrome the Dukes broke out last year. Like you guys, we just arrived to the uni game last year when our Duke Club (fundraising arm of Athletics) recruited some of our bigger alumni donors specifically for initiatives like this. Not all of our fans agree on this, but we’d go all purple all the time if possible. We actually haven’t busted out the purple lids (our traditional helmet is gold with a purple “JMU”) yet this year, but I’ve got a feeling we’ll see them this week as this trip is about a whole lot more than the game (recruiting, a rare opportunity for our fairly large group of Texas alums, and a showcase to FBS conferences Madison would love to get a call from).

In your last “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” post on your blog, you talked about the lack of attendance at JMU games. We share your struggle. Is there anything the university is trying to do to improve that?

It’s such a tough issue. The truth is student attendance is down across college football, even at places like ‘Bama. Spotty wifi, long games thanks to scoreboard-spinning offenses, and other items contribute on the student front. Our current coaching staff has actually been doing solid foundational work on that front after years of neglect by the old staff.

On the alumni/community front, there is an ENORMOUS schism amongst the JMU fanbase between those who are happy in FCS and those who are tired of what they perceive as the administration’s bungling of potential opportunities to move to FBS and the misleading nature of the fundraising they’ve been doing related to this topic and this is the first season we’ve really seen the pissed-off contingent pull their support to a certain degree. Part of this is scheduling itself as former rivals like Appalachian St. and Old Dominion have moved up and been replaced by much less appealing opponents in the early season. On that front, it goes without saying everyone’s pretty excited to be playing SMU this week!

Is there a more interesting potential matchup this week than JMU’s top corner Taylor Reynolds and SMU’s top receiver Courtland Sutton?

Probably not but a huge part of this matchup will be another matchup, specifically whether JMU can generate pressure on Davis. The Dukes have been pretty vanilla in terms of their pass rush, thus lacking pressure, but some of that is just not putting stuff on film against overmatched opponents. They’ll need to do more if Reynolds and company are to hold up in the back. In general, the real key in our FBS/FCS matchups is always how JMU matches up on the lines. Skill position players are often nearly as talented at the high end of FCS (e.g. Flacco, Colston, and Cruz just from our own conference in recent years), but it’s up front where  our teams often wear down. That will be key Saturday.

The FBS has finally implemented a playoff system to determine a national champion, but the FCS has already had their own playoff system all along. Are you a fan of the way the FCS runs their postseason as opposed to the FBS?

No doubt about it, but there’s a limit to playoff expansion that FCS has probably surpassed. FCS playoffs included 16 teams for years and that was an amazing, brutal, perfect season. 20 teams wasn’t bad either but at 24 – especially given all the defections to FBS by long-time powers like Boise, Marshall, Georgia Southern and App. St. and the fact the Ivy and the two HBCU conferences no longer participate – it does feel pretty watered down now. But four teams at FBS just feels too exclusive (which of course is exactly what the P5 want). 8 teams sounds about right with all 5 P5 champs, the winner of the G5, and two at-larges. Ultimately can’t see a way it doesn’t expand.

The playoffs – like March Madness – are incredible. There is nothing better for us than FCS Selection Sunday the week before Thanksgiving, though we must concede playoff attendance during the holidays is a tough ask when a championship run takes up every single weekend from Thanksgiving to New Year’s.

James Madison beats SMU if…

They win the turnover battle, limit big plays over the top, aren’t distracted by a rare big road trip and can be solid in our fairly untested kicking game (our competition has been so weak so far that we’ve barely punted or been held to FG’s though our placekicker Ryan Maglio is reliable in his second year). It also wouldn’t hurt if the Mustangs take them lightly after Baylor and TCU.

Vegas started with SMU as a five-point favorite and the dummy public bet this up to seven immediately, but these teams are pretty close and share similar styles. With all the quick possessions, it just seems hard to believe both team will have any trouble at all hitting the mid twenties in points at the least. Sagarin ratings have SMU at 107th and JMU at 109th so a true shootout seems likely. The real question is whether JMU is ready for SMU’s probably depth advantage in an almost surreally fast-paced game and whether the whole game just slows down for the Mustangs after trading punches so well with the big boys instead of beating up on patsies like the Dukes have.

Again, check out Joey Hayden’s SMU response on JMUSportsBlog.com.

2 years ago
Written by Joey Hayden
Joey is the managing editor and staff writer for The Stable, as well as the host of the "Inside The Stable" podcast, and in his spare time he is a digital sports editor for The Dallas Morning News. He graduated from SMU in 2014, follows sports religiously, and knows for a fact Han Solo shot first...