This weekend, that dopey College Football playoff committee will select its four teams for the creatively named “College Football Playoff.” The debate rages on who should be in the Final 4 and why. If you’ve turned on the television this week, it’s been a close call as the most prevalent story of the week…Does Alabama belong in the playoff?, or Can Tennessee ever find a football coach? The answer to both is apparently “NO”.
True, these conference championship games this weekend could be interesting, particular in the SEC which appears to be nothing more than a CFP Quarterfinal between Georgia and Auburn and the ACC between Clemson and Miami. But, lost in the shuffle this weekend is that just one level below the “big boys” you can find some damn good football.
The NCAA’s Football Championship subdivision (FCS), Division II and Division III divisions get it right. There’s a committee that picks the playoff field but they have more teams and less debate. The FCS has a 24 team playoff, Division II a 28 team playoff and Division III a 32 team playoff, a large majority of which make it in the field as an automatic qualifier/conference champion. Forever we’ve heard that won’t work in FBS. The number one excuse from College Presidents is that it a playoff interferes with academics. Give me a damn break. Some of the top academic schools in the country play in Division III and they make it work. It won’t happen at the FBS under the NCAA umbrella however, because the Presidents control “big-boy” college football and they aren’t giving that up.
As the FCS starts its second round this weekend, you’d be hard pressed right now to find a better football program in the country than Virginia’s James Madison University. You can make an argument that top to bottom, it’s the best in the Commonwealth right now. The Dukes are the Defending FCS Champions and are the winners of 23 straight heading into Saturday’s home game with Stony Brook. James Madison toppled five-time defending champion North Dakota State in last year’s semi-finals and then beat Youngstown State in the championship game to score the school’s second FCS Title.
The school sits in the lovely little town of Harrisonburg, Virginia in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and before becoming a football power, the school tried to make a splash in basketball by hiring former Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell. It worked somewhat, but Lefty was eventually “invited” to retire and JMU is now just a mid-level mid-major team that may make the tournament every 10-15 years.
JMU didn’t just suddenly discover winning football. Once known as an all-female teacher’s College, then Madison College went co-ed in 1968. Five year’s later in 1972, the school fielded it’s first football team playing it’s first game on October 7, 1972 against the Junior Varsity team from Shepherd College in West Virginia. Initially a Division III school, JMU jumped to the I-AA ranks (now FCS) in 1980. They were an independent in the FCS for 12 years before joining the “Yankee Conference” which became the Atlantic-10 Conference and now the Colonial Athletic Association. Among those the school turned out are former Washington Redskin Super Bowl champion Wide Receiver Gary Clark, Kicker Scott Norwood who will unfortunately be known forever as having missed a potential game winning kick in the Super Bowl for the Buffalo Bills, and Charley Haley, a Pro Football Hall of Famer who won 5 Super Bowl rings.
James Madison made it’s first appearance in the FCS playoffs in 1987, followed by playoff appearances in 1991, 1994, 1995, and 1999 never winning more than a single game. In 2004, however, under coach Mickey Mathews the Dukes won four games including beating Montana for its first national title. JMU added playoff appearances in 2006, 2007, and 2008. A three-year drought ended in 2011, and this year is the Dukes fourth straight appearance in the FCS playoffs.
They are the odds on favorite to win back-to-back titles which is very common in FCS. Appalachian State won three straight, before North Dakota State won five in a row. JMU won all 11 games this season by an average of 27 points per game. Their closest game was a 7 point win over their biggest rival, Richmond.
JMU’s current rise coincides with their career rise of their head coach. Mike Houston is North Carolina born. Houston played college football at Division II Mars Hill College in North Carolina graduating in 1994. He began his coaching career at a high school in Asheville, North Carolina. He moved to the college ranks at Division II Brevard College located in the hinterlands of Western North Carolina in 2006. Houston moved up to Lenoir-Rhyne in Hickory, North Carolina as the Defensive Coordinator in 2007. He was named the Bears head coach in 2011 and led the program to three conference titles, and its first ever appearance in the Division II National Title game. He then parlayed his success into a job at the Citadel where he coached for four years and made the all-male military school a regular in the FCS Playoffs.
When he got the job at James Madison, Houston didn’t just pick up his entire staff and bring them to JMU. Instead he brought only two coaches from the Citadel and surrounded himself with coaches who had ties to Virginia. The result is that 67 of the Dukes’ players played high school football in Virginia. His career record at JMU is 25-1.
The question is will James Madison aim higher? Fellow in-state school Liberty is moving up to FBS next year and there is a school of thought in Virginia that JMU should consider following. Liberty will have to go it as an independent because no FBS conference wants to touch anything involving caption self-righteous Jerry Falwell, Jr.
JMU wouldn’t have that problem and would easily fit into the Sun Belt or Conference USA. If you go just by facilities it appears a matter of when, not if, JMU moves up. The school expanded it’s cozy stadium in 2001 to add an upper deck, club seating and private suites. The stadium still has room to grow and so does the JMU program, but for right now they’ll concentrate on trying to win another National Title, and you’d be wise as a football fan to turn of the “big boys” and find a way to watch it because you won’t be disappointed in the quality of play.