Welcome to FBS, James Madison: How two-time national champions prepare for big-time move

James Madison will make its FBS debut in the Sun Belt Conference this fall. With the right timing, the right coach and an instilled culture of excellence, the Dukes do so knowing they can be one of the greatest FCS-to-FBS success stories of the modern era.

Located in western Virginia in the Shenandoah Valley, the Harrisonburg-based campus and its athletic department have seen rapid growth in the 21st century. The Ducks won the FCS (then Division I-AA) national championship in 2004 under head coach Mickey Matthews, and that success helped fuel an investment in football that paid off with seven more conference championships, three more national FCS championship (2016, 2017, 2019) and another national title in 2016.

The school’s on-field success and location have made JMU an oft-mentioned FBS expansion candidate in years past. There were even potential opportunities to move to FBS about “10 or 11 years ago,” according to head coach Curt Cignetti, but the school chose to hold off and continue the building process, both in football and other sports.

The cancellation of the 2020 fall season due to the COVID-19 pandemic has sparked renewed discussions about where the Dukes sit in the Division I landscape, and the massive upheaval in the Sun Belt has provided an opportunity for JMU to find a strong landing spot at the FBS level. By joining the Sun Belt, JMU aligns with old FCS foes Appalachian State and Georgia Southern, while establishing new regional rivalries with fellow Sun Belt newcomers Old Dominion and Marshall, both joining the league from Conference USA.

While the move provides some familiarity, JMU is moving to the FBS in an unprecedented way. What has so far been a two-year transition period will be attempted for just one season. While other programs have used those years to turn the schedule toward competition at the FBS level, the Dukes will play a full eight-game Sun Belt schedule plus a non-conference slate that includes a Nov. 5 trip to Louisville. Welcoming the challenge of a tougher schedule while program transitions are just the first part of what has already become an aggressive scheduling philosophy, with the Dukes lining up more Power Five foes in 2023 (Virginia), 2024 (North Carolina) and 2025 (Virginia Tech).

The right coach at the right time

While playing in the FBS — or even making that kind of transition — might seem jarring, there’s not much in college football that would come as a surprise to Cignetti. The 61-year-old son of College Football Hall of Fame head coach Frank Cignetti Sr. is approaching 40 years of college coaching experience at all levels of the game. From spending four years as the wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator for Nick Saban at Alabama, to seven years at NC State as the quarterbacks coach (Cignetti helped Philip Rivers and the Wolfpack set a school record for single-season wins ), the Dukes coach was on the sidelines of college football’s highest level. On the other end of the spectrum, Cignetti has experience at smaller schools from his time as an assistant at Davidson, Rice and Temple in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Cignetti’s last 11 seasons, all as a head coach, prepared him to lead a proud JMU program into its FBS era. He started at IUP, where his father was head coach from 1986-2005, and went 53-17 overall while leading the Crimson Hawks to three Division II playoff appearances and a conference title in 2012. He then took over an Elon program that had won a combined seven games over the previous three seasons, leading Phoenix to back-to-back FCS playoff appearances and a top 25 ranking. That success paved the way for his hiring at JMU, where he maintained the standard of a national championship run and now faces the challenge of raising the bar for the program once again, one step ahead of the competition.

“There is no doubt that this is a very unique challenge. All the places I’ve been, I’ve been blessed. They prepared me for this moment,” Cignetti told CBS Sports. “I feel like every day we come in, we have a plan.”

That plan helped Cignetti lead JMU to a 33-5 record in his three seasons with the Dukes, reaching the national semifinals each season and finishing as the national runner-up in his first year with the program. JMU was one of the few places in the country where Sales’ performance included joining a program that competes for a national championship every year. Now, that ingrained culture of success will be key to helping the Dukes stay focused on excellence as the competition and expectations change with the move.

“That’s what I learned from Nick [Saban] at Alabama,” Cignetti said, referring to JMU’s “process-oriented” culture. “Who we play doesn’t change that score. Every Saturday the players will be expecting a win.”

Building an FBS roster

“Since our [2021] the season is over, we were operating as an FBS school,” Cignetti explained.

Thanks to the NCAA-granted extra year of eligibility due to the pandemic, JMU’s scholarship count has now reached the 70s, but building to the FBS standard of 85 scholarships has been met with challenges. The transfer portal made things more difficult; namely, JMU faces many of the same challenges that all Group of Five programs face in terms of losing top guys to other programs. The Dukes also lost the advantage of being a preferred destination when NCAA rules required a player to move down a level to avoid sitting out a season when transferring from an FBS program.

“Like a lot of top-five schools in the country, your best one, two or three guys are going to get stolen,” Cignetti said.

Understanding and adapting to the new recruiting and list management environment didn’t surprise Cignetti or his staff. Part of operating as an FBS school is developing a new way to structure recruiting, an effort aided initially by coaches who have seen this transition up close. Cory Hederman, now Rutgers’ defensive backs coach, was the AFCA FCS Assistant Coach of the Year as JMU’s defensive coordinator in 2021 and had previous experience as an assistant at ODU when the Monarchs moved from FCS to FBS in early 2010 .The examples set by Appalachian State and ODU may provide some guidance for navigating this roster management transition, but JMU is entering a transfer and recruiting environment that is as unprecedented as the one-year transition itself.

Ultimately, Cignetti knows that some of the struggles he and his staff have faced will fade away as the program further cements itself into the fabric of the FBS landscape.

“I think this program is only going to get better and better every year,” Cignetti said, noting that the Dukes have been “punched” on the recruiting trail for not being bowl eligible or conference championship this season. “The next class [2023 cycle]they can’t be hit for it.”

What to expect on the field in 2022

The Sun Belt media projected JMU to finish sixth, or second to last, in the East Division at the conference’s media days earlier this week. Cignetti joked that Elon was also expected to finish near the bottom of the Colonial Athletic Association in his first year with Phoenix, only for that team to win eight games and earn an FCS playoff bid. Still, there is absolute confirmation that the move to an FBS schedule has changed the margin for error when it comes to wins and losses.

“Now every week you have to play your A-game,” Cignetti said. “Before, maybe you could play your C-plus game and get the result. This is not so”

It’s possible Sun Belt preseason poll voters feel the postseason ineligibility will have an impact on the program when it comes to navigating a full Sun Belt schedule. But even though the Dukes may not be bowl eligible, that hasn’t changed their focus. Much of this is a credit to the culture that has been built.

“I don’t see our team having a problem with motivation this year because motivation is always going to win every week,” JMU star linebacker Isaac Ukwu said at Sun Belt Media Days. “Whether we can win a conference championship or win a bowl game, once the whistle goes and we get between the lines, it’s going to be competitive no matter what’s on the line.”

Running back Percy Aggie-The Obese put it even more succinctly. “The standard is excellence at JMU,” he added. “Once the whistle blows, it’s game time.”

There will be challenges if players who are used to winning more than eight times out of 10 start to see that win percentage drop in 2022, but the expectation is that the squad and culture are good enough to be competitive against all in schedule. Defensive line is a position of strength, and while the quarterback battle has yet to be settled heading into fall camp, Cignetti is confident he has three guys (Colorado State transfer Todd Centeio, Billy Atkins and freshman Alonza Barnett) who everyone can get the job done.

With additional recruiting classes and additional investment in football, this is a program that should only get better every year. However, you don’t have to put off all the success celebrations until later. While the Dukes may not be eligible for a conference championship in 2022, it’s not crazy to think this team will find itself closer to conference championship contention than the preseason Sun Belt poll suggests.

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