Conference re-alignment isn’t done yet just because the AAC has added their six new teams to the fray. The dominos toppled by Texas and Oklahoma over the summer are still falling and it seems as though they will now reach all the way down the FCS. With the American swooping in and gutting the likes of C-USA, the Sun Belt is now also expected to make a move and early reports indicate they have their eyes on James Madison.
It should come as little surprise that a team like JMU is garnering attention from the FBS. The Dukes, winners of two FCS national titles in their 49-year history, have the pedigree of a program worthy of such an honor but that pedigree goes far beyond the success they’ve seen on the gridiron.
That is not to say that JMU has not seen their fair share of on-field accomplishments because they certainly have. The program has a staggering 81-17 record since 2014 and has advanced to three national championships in that span, winning one. The Dukes also hold the distinction of being one of the few teams to knock juggernaut North Dakota State from the postseason over the last decade. They have sent several players to the NFL and current East Carolina head coach Mike Houston served as James Madison’s coach from 2016 to 2018.
Beyond the field, though, the Dukes have the facilities and resources that the Sun Belt would be looking for. Located in Harrisonburg, VA, JMU plays their home games in Bridgeforth Stadium, a venue that can seat nearly 25,000. The program also boasts a $50 million budget that would be near the top of the Sun Belt if they are indeed invited to join which it seems as though they will be.
Of course we have to say “if” while talking about all this right now but it certainly seems as though JMU is all but a lock to receive an invitation from the Sun Belt soon. The league has already acted quickly in locking in Southern Miss and if the early reports are true, James Madison along with several others could be next in short order.
@SunBelt will invite James Madison, Marshall, Southern Miss and Old Dominion as soon as next week CBS Sports has learned. Other outlets have reported next week. Differing timelines at this point. Not sure who reported first but @MattBrownCFB and @collegead were on it.— Dennis Dodd (@dennisdoddcbs) October 22, 2021
Dukes athletic director Jeff Bourne has kept his comments regarding the rumors close to the vest. “We look at everything that we do from an intentional and a diligent standpoint. And we’re going to continue to do that,” Bourne said during JMU’s basketball media days when asked about the possible move. “I’m not going to get into individual conversations and what-if scenarios.”
A worry that’s always prominent when a team moves up is the concern whether or not they will be competitive and truly bring something to the conference they enter. That ought not to be a worry for the Sun Belt who currently fields some other former FCS mainstays that are doing just fine. Look at Appalachian State or Coastal Carolina and the proof is in the pudding. Clearly it isn’t much of a concern if the league is planning on sending them a formal invitation.
The opportunity here outweighs the risk if you’re JMU. The Sun Belt recently announced an extension to their current contract with ESPN that will take the partnership through the 2030-31 academic year. The Dukes, who currently play in the Colonial Athletic Association, have most of their games stream on FloSports. The move would increase the programs exposure nationally and more eyes should eventually lead to increased revenue opportunities.
One thing is for sure, though: if James Madison leaves the FCS it will be big news not only for the Sun Belt but for the CAA as well. The league has been dominated by JMU as of late with the team winning four of the last six conference titles (and they seem well on pace to claim another this fall). With them out, the conference would be wide open. Whether or not the CAA would look to replace JMU is left entirely up to speculation at this point as they would still have 11 football members following the departure.
This, of course, would not mark the first time a CAA member has moved up. UMass parted ways in 2011 and Old Dominion left in 2013 to play as an FCS independent before moving to C-USA a year later.
There’s no doubt that losing the Dukes would be a blow but certainly not a blow the CAA couldn’t withstand. It’s safe to say that even in light of JMU leaving, the conference would still be very competitive on a national scale. Currently there are three CAA programs ranked in the FCS top 25 that aren’t James Madison. Delaware, Villanova (who upset the Dukes earlier this season) and Rhode Island all currently seem poised to take the torch if necessary. The CAA consistently sends multiple participants to the postseason and would likely continue to do so.
James Madison is undeniably one of the best FCS teams out there today and could no doubt retain a huge amount of national relevancy at their current level for years to come in the event they choose to stay put. That being said, the opportunity for growth and upward movement may not be this great again for a long while. This is a program that is ready for the next step and the Sun Belt seems to be the perfect landing place. Nothing has been confirmed at the time of publication however all indications say that, at the very least, JMU will be getting their chance this week. If so, the Dukes will have a heck of a decision to make in the coming days.