College GameDay is headed to check out FCS James Madison Saturday, the first time the show has ever visited the Dukes. College football's biggest show occasionally rolls up on FCS schools, and few deserve it more than JMU and its rowdy fans.
GameDay's trip to Harrisonburg is more than just a cute story, and more than just alumni bias from longtime producer Lee Fitting, who graduated from JMU in 1996. The Dukes are the only 7-0 team in the FCS with a win over an FBS squad (SMU). There's a pretty blasé slate of FBS games on tap this weekend, and the No. 4 Dukes face off against 11th-ranked Richmond. If they win, there's a really strong argument that they're the top team in football's second level. It may be the best game on Saturday.
JMU has made waves in the college football world before, winning the 2004 FCS national championship and famously upsetting No. 13 Virginia Tech in 2010. But this might be the Dukes' best squad yet. Here's why you should be glad the college football world is turning its eyes toward JMU Saturday morning.
1. The Dukes are pretty damn good at football
There's a bit of a power vacuum in the FCS. North Dakota State was expected to roll to a fifth straight national title, but the Bison have looked mortal, dropping the season opener to Montana and losing to South Dakota this past week.
The Dukes have been happy to fill in. James Madison isn't ranked No. 1 yet. That's currently Jacksonville State, the team that lost to Auburn in overtime. JMU's high-powered offense is blowing fools off the map, averaging 48.7 points and 613 yards a game. The Dukes have posted at least 38 points every game, hitting 50 four times in seven games. The only game where they allowed more than 30 was on the road at SMU, JMU's first FBS win since Virginia Tech.
Two weeks ago I heaped praise on Portland State for its 66-7 beatdown of North Texas, the largest FCS-over-FBS win ever. Well, James Madison hung 48 on SMU, and SMU trounced North Texas 31-13, so things might have gotten equally ugly if the Dukes were in Denton rather than the Vikings.
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Everett Withers has done a spectacular job in two years as JMU's head coach, his first true head coaching gig. (He was interim head coach at UNC in the wake of the academic scandal, but that shouldn't really count.) The Dukes had plenty of success under longtime coach Mickey Matthews, including the national title run. But after a 6-6 season and a ninth-place CAA finish in 2013, JMU had missed the playoffs in four of five years.
JMU turned to Withers, who had spent two years at Ohio State as one of Urban Meyer's defensive coordinators, a time in which the Buckeyes went 22-2. The Dukes immediately sprung back into the playoffs with a 9-4 year, and this year they should seriously contend for a national title.
Expect Withers to be a name you'll hear in FBS coaching searches. It's rather rude to hype JMU while talking about what its head coach might do elsewhere, but I'm just being realistic. After quickly turning the Dukes back into a contender, schools with deeper pockets will certainly wonder what Withers can do for them.
2. James Madison has a great mascot head to wear
You're probably a bit confused about why James Madison is the Dukes. Madison himself was perhaps the most important author in the drafting of the Constitution, the man who wrote the Bill of Rights, and waged war against England in 1812. How the heck does a school named after him have a mascot honoring the British hereditary peerage system?
The Dukes are actually not named after the concept of wealthy British landholders, but rather the school's first president, Samuel Page Duke, who ran the university from 1919 to 1947. Duke provided early JMU sports teams with equipment. In turn, they named their teams after him.
But nobody was really sure how to represent a duke. Would the team's mascots just be some stodgy British guys with lots of money? In 1972, the school found the best representation possible: a big ol' English Bulldog wearing a little crown, with the rather arbitrary reasoning that a duke might have a bulldog as a pet.
I don't care about the reasoning. There are few better mascots than Duke Dog, in costume form, monumental statue form and in actual bulldog form. Like James Madison, I am staunchly against the idea of living in a dictatorial monarchy. However, this is an exception. I would happily sign up to live in a duchy ruled by this enormous, floppy, silly-yet-regal puppy. Tyranny in the form of mandated belly rubs and playtime wouldn't be so bad.
I eagerly look forward to Lee Corso donning the Duke Dog head. This is especially true because this weekend James Madison is playing the Richmond Spiders. The last few years I have gone to the Atlantic 10 basketball tournament in Brooklyn, and I have encountered the Richmond Spider mascot. It is the worst thing I have ever seen. Four spindly legs spring out of its back, and a horrible arachnid smile sneers at you from its face, teeth clenched in joy fantasizing about capturing you in its web and devouring you. Ninety-three percent of my nightmares revolve around being murdered by the Richmond Spider mascot. If Corso opts for the spider head over the Duke Dog head, it will take years for him to regain my trust.
3. The Dukes have better fans than many FBS teams
Saturday's game will be a sellout, with tickets going off the market shortly after GameDay was announced. That's not a surprise.
Last year, JMU averaged 19,816 fans per game, second-most in the FCS. Cut them some slack for not finishing first, as it was the first season JMU averaged below 20,000 fans since 2010. Even so, JMU had better attendance than the average Sun Belt game (18,294) and MAC game (15,431.)
In 2011, 25,002 fans watched the Dukes per game. That in and of itself isn't that noteworthy until you realize capacity at Bridgeforth Stadium is supposedly only 24,877. While I commend JMU fans for their passion, I wish they would pay the fire marshal a little courtesy. Do you know how hard it was for him to come up with those numbers? Show some respect.
4. You need to watch Vad Lee's rebirth
Remember ex-Georgia Tech QB Vad Lee? Maybe you don't. A four-star recruit out of high school, Lee felt he didn't really get the chance to shine in the Yellow Jackets' triple option. (All three options are runs.) He completed under 50 percent of his passes in both seasons at GT, and only had one 200-yard passing game, an overtime loss to Georgia his sophomore year.
Boy, was he right. Last year Lee broke James Madison's single-game passing record, then broke it again, en route to setting the school's season records for total offense, completions, passing yards and touchdowns.
This year, he's the favorite to win the Walter Payton Trophy for the best player in FCS football. In the win at SMU, he became the first Division I player -- that's FCS *or* FBS -- to throw and run for 275 yards in the same game, tallying 289 yards and three touchdowns through the air and 276 yards and two more on the ground. He threw a beautiful ball on a game-winning touchdown with just 27 seconds left on a play Lee has since said he called himself.
Perhaps the biggest sign Lee is in a better place now than he was at Georgia Tech: In his three years with the Yellow Jackets, he either played in or watched three losses to Virginia Tech. Losing to the Hokies will never be a problem at James Madison.
5. Yeah, this'll be a nice backdrop
Oh, man, this sucks. I just completely forgot what colleges are supposed to look like! I know I went to college and everything, but I swear right now I just can't remember! Do they have buildings? Are they deserts, or mountain ranges, or what? I just can't remember. Let's just hop in our Google Maps teleportation device and figure it out.
Oh, yeah, that's what colleges look like. That's the quad in Harrisonburg where GameDay will be held, and that is what college campuses are supposed to look like.