Welcome to the FBS, James Madison: How two-time national champions are gearing up for the move to the big time

This fall, James Madison will make its FBS debut in the Sun Belt Conference. With the proper timing, the proper coach and an instilled tradition of excellence, the Dukes are doing so figuring out they are often one in every of the greatest FCS-to-FBS success tales of the trendy period.

Sitting in the western a part of Virginia in the Shenandoah Valley, the Harrisonburg-based campus and its athletic division have seen fast progress in the twenty first century. The Dukes received the FCS (then Division I-AA) national championship in 2004 with head coach Mickey Matthews, and that success helped kick-start an funding in soccer that paid off with seven extra convention championships, three extra FCS national championship recreation appearances ( 2016, 2017, 2019) and one other national title in 2016.

The on-field success and faculty’s location have made JMU a steadily talked about candidate for FBS enlargement in years previous. There have been even potential alternatives to make the move to the FBS about “10 or 11 years in the past,” in accordance to head coach Curt Cignetti, however the college opted to defer and proceed the constructing course of, each in soccer and different sports activities.

The cancellation of the 2020 fall season due to the COVID-19 pandemic sparked renewed discussions about the place the Dukes stood in the Division I panorama, and big upheaval in the Sun Belt offered a possibility for JMU to discover a robust touchdown place at the FBS degree . In becoming a member of the Sun Belt, JMU traces up with previous FCS foes Appalachian State and Georgia Southern, whereas additionally establishing new regional rivalries with fellow Sun Belt newcomers Old Dominion and Marshall, each of which are becoming a member of the league from Conference USA.

While the move supplies some familiarity, JMU is transitioning to the FBS in unprecedented vogue. What has beforehand been a two-year transition interval might be tried in only one season. While different applications have used these years to flip the schedule to FBS-level competitors, the Dukes might be taking part in a full eight-game Sun Belt schedule plus a nonconference slate that features a journey to Louisville on Nov. 5. Welcoming the problem of a more durable schedule whereas the program transitions is simply the first piece of what is already turn out to be an aggressive scheduling philosophy, with the Dukes lining up extra Power Five foes in 2023 (Virginia), 2024 (North Carolina) and 2025 ( Virginia Tech).

The proper coach at the proper time

While FBS play — and even making this type of transition — may appear intimidating, there’s little in school soccer that might be a shock to Cignetti. The 61-year-old son of College Football Hall of Fame head coach Frank Cignetti Sr. is closing in on 40 years of faculty teaching expertise in any respect ranges of the recreation. From spending 4 years as a large receivers coach and recruiting coordinator for Nick Saban at Alabama, to a seven-year run with NC State as quarterbacks coach (Cignetti helped Philip Rivers and the Wolfpack set a single-season college report for wins), the Dukes’ coach has been on the sidelines at the highest degree of faculty soccer. On the different finish of the spectrum, Cignetti has expertise at smaller faculties from his time as an assistant at Davidson, Rice and Temple in the late 80s and early 90s.

Cignetti’s final 11 seasons, all as a head coach, have ready him to information a proud JMU program into its FBS period. He began at IUP, the place his father was the head coach from 1986-2005, and totaled a 53-17 report whereas main the Crimson Hawks to three Division II playoff appearances and a convention title in 2012. He then took over an Elon program that had received seven video games mixed in the earlier three seasons, main the Phoenix to back-to-back FCS playoff appearances and top-25 finishes. That success paved the approach for his rent at JMU, the place he is upheld the customary of national championship rivalry and now faces the problem of elevating the bar for the program once more with a step up in competitors.

“There’s no query it is a very distinctive problem. All the locations I’ve been, I’ve been blessed. It’s ready me for this second,” Cignetti advised CBS Sports. “I really feel like day-after-day once we are available in we have got a plan.”

That plan has helped Cignetti lead JMU to a 33-5 report throughout his three seasons with the Dukes, reaching the national semifinals every season and ending as the national runner-up in his first yr with the program. JMU was one in every of the few locations in the nation the place the gross sales pitch included becoming a member of a program that competes for a national championship each single yr. Now, that ingrained tradition of success might be a key in serving to the Dukes keep centered on excellence whereas the competitors, and expectations, change with this move.

“That’s what I realized from Nick [Saban] at Alabama,” Cignetti stated, referencing JMU’s “process-oriented” tradition. “Who we’re taking part in does not change that consequence. Every Saturday, the gamers will anticipate to win.”

Building out an FBS roster

“Since our [2021] season ended, we have operated like an FBS college,” Cignetti defined.

Thanks to the NCAA-granted further yr of eligibility due to the pandemic, JMU’s scholarship numbers have been already up into the 70s, however constructing up to the FBS customary of 85 scholarships was met with challenges. The switch portal has made issues trickier; specifically, JMU faces a lot of the identical challenges that every one Group of Five applications face when it comes to dropping prime guys to different applications. The Dukes have additionally misplaced the fringe of being a most well-liked vacation spot when NCAA guidelines necessitated a participant move down a degree to keep away from sitting out a season when transferring out of an FBS program.

“Like many Group of Five faculties in the nation, your prime one, two or three guys are going to get poached,” Cignetti stated.

Understanding and adapting to the new recruiting and roster administration setting has not stunned Cignetti or his workers. Part of working like an FBS college is growing a brand new approach to construction recruiting — an effort helped initially by coaches who’ve seen that transition up shut. Corey Hetherman, now Rutgers’ linebackers coach, was the AFCA FCS Assistant Coach of the Year as JMU’s defensive coordinator in 2021 and had prior expertise as an ODU assistant as the Monarchs transitioned from the FCS to FBS in the early 2010s. Examples set by Appalachian State and ODU may give some steerage into navigating that roster administration transition, however JMU is getting into a switch and recruiting setting that’s as unprecedented as the one-year transition itself.

Ultimately, Cignetti is aware of a few of the hardships he and his workers have confronted will fade away as the program additional entrenches itself into the cloth of the FBS panorama.

“I feel this program will solely enhance and get higher yearly,” Cignetti stated, noting that the Dukes have been getting “hammered” on the recruiting path for being ineligible for a bowl recreation or convention championship this season. “The subsequent class [2023 cycle]they cannot get hit for that.”

What to anticipate on the area in 2022

The Sun Belt media projected JMU to end sixth, or next-to-last, in the East Division at the convention’s media days earlier this week. Cignetti quipped that Elon was additionally projected to end close to the backside of the Colonial Athletic Association throughout his first yr with the Phoenix, solely for that staff to win eight video games and earn an FCS playoff bid. Still, there’s completely an acknowledgment that the move to an FBS schedule has modified the margin for error when it comes to wins and losses.

“Now, each week you will have to play your A-game,” Cignetti stated. “Before, you would perhaps play your C-plus recreation and get the consequence. That’s not the case”

It’s attainable that Sun Belt preseason ballot voters imagine there might be a toll that postseason ineligibility takes on the program when it comes to navigating the full Sun Belt schedule. But whereas the Dukes won’t be eligible for a bowl recreation, that hasn’t modified their focus. Much of that may be a credit score to the tradition that is been constructed.

“I do not see our staff having a difficulty with motivation this yr as a result of the motivation will all the time be successful on a week-in, week-out foundation,” JMU star defensive lineman Isaac Ukwu stated at Sun Belt Media Days. “No matter whether or not we are able to win a convention championship or win a bowl recreation, as soon as the whistle blows and we get between the traces it is going to get aggressive it doesn’t matter what’s on the line.”

Running again Percy Agyei-Obese put it much more succinctly. “The customary is excellence at JMU,” he added. “Once the whistle begins, it is recreation time.”

There might be challenges if the gamers who are used to successful greater than eight instances out of 10 begin to see that successful share drop in 2022, however expectations are that the staff and tradition are ok to be aggressive in opposition to everybody on the schedule. The line of defense is a place of power, and whereas the quarterback battle isn’t but settled heading into fall camp, Cignetti is assured that he has three guys (Colorado State switch Todd Centeio, Billy Atkins and freshman Alonza Barnett) that may all get the job completed

With further recruiting courses and additional funding in soccer, it is a program that ought to solely get higher every year. However, you do not have to maintain off all the celebrations for success till additional down the street. While the Dukes won’t be eligible for a convention championship in 2022, it isn’t loopy to assume this staff might be sitting nearer to convention championship rivalry than what the Sun Belt preseason ballot suggests.

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