Along Interstate 81 going up northwest Virginia past the Blue Ridge Mountains, travelers make their way through the Shenandoah Valley. Nestled in the valley is the city of Harrisonburg, home to over 120,000 residents. Right in the middle of the city just off I-81 is James Madison University.
JMU, home to over 20,000 students, is one of the top masters-level universities in the country. The Dukes, with 18 varsity sports, have been fairly successful in recent times. JMU hosted College Gameday in 2015, had a ranked women's basketball team, softball was in the top 10 and hosted a Super Regional and boasts several nationally-competitive sports.
Yet the Dukes remain in the Colonial Athletic Association and FCS.
Realignment wasn't kind to the Colonial with in-state foes VCU and George Mason going to the Atlantic 10 while Old Dominion went to Conference USA. One day, the Dukes had four in-state foes, now they have one in William and Mary.
To bolster the slate, the CAA brought in SoCon teams College of Charleston (non-football) and Elon (football). That duo now joins the Dukes, W&M, along with non-football full members Drexel, Hofstra, Northeastern and UNCW plus football and full members Delaware and Towson to make a 10-team league. Football-only members are Albany, Maine, New Hampshire, Stony Brook, Rhode Island, Richmond and Villanova to make the 12-team CAA Football, which is technically a separate entity from the CAA.
Bridgeforth is an FBS facility, no doubt. You can see it from the interstate and it's massively impressive up close. In the CAA, it towers over the competition. Delaware has their 22,000-seat Delaware Stadium, but after that, the next-highest capacity is William and Mary's 12,000-seat Zable Stadium. In fact, five of the 12 CAA Football members have a stadium capacity under 10,000 with Maine's Alfond Stadium right at 10,000.
The other facilities at JMU are impressive as well. The only one that is lacking is the JMU Convocation Center and that's being replaced in the near future by an $88 million New Convo.
Why did JMU stay? It's clear the Dukes have outgrown the CAA and are FBS ready. However, the leadership wasn't ready to move.
JMU did a study on moving to FBS back in 2013, which while not giving a recommendation one way or the other, said the Dukes are ""well-positioned for a potential transition to FBS."
Then in April 2014, Sun Belt Commisioner Karl Benson said JMU elected to stay in the CAA and FCS rather than move up. There was an argument to be made against moving up, especially to the Sun Belt. The closest opponent would be 300 miles away in Appalachian State and most of the league would be in the gulf states, far away from Harrisonburg. But then again, JMU already flies their football team to Maine, New Hampshire and New York for games.
That decision reverberated even to today. Would Coastal Carolina get an invite if JMU decided to go? Would the Sun Belt have a championship game sooner than 2018?
But no such move was made and now, the FBS doors seemed closed for the time being for JMU. The MAC seems content at 12 teams unless Eastern Michigan drops down (they're not) and Conference USA is probably more than full at 14. On Wednesday, the Sun Belt Commisioner Karl Benson said the league is "absolutely not" adding more teams.
Even though there's nothing to concretely publicly to say JMU President Jonathan Alger is anti-FBS, he did pen a letter last September against Cost of Attendance which was signed by a number of smaller schools, none of which share JMU's visions academically or athletically. That should tell you a lot about Alger and his stance on JMU to FBS.
UPDATE: Literally the day before this was scheduled to publish, JMU announced that Cost of Attendance would be covered for men's and women's basketball starting in 2017-18. Nothing for football.
Q: How does this facility impact the prospect of a move to an FBS conference?
A: At which time JMU is offered an invitation to an FBS-affiliated league, a thorough and thoughtful recommendation will be made to the JMU Board of Visitors. No such invitation has been extended. The new Convocation Center is about providing the highest level experience for our student-athletes and general student population.
That should give you an idea on how often FBS is brought up in Harrisonburg. Heck, Marshall's beat writer would pick JMU over FIU and FAU for a new regional FBS conference. But for now, it seems like JMU's decision to stay in the great realignment is no longer a decision they can make.