James Madison riding 13-game winning streak and making the transition from FCS look almost easy

HARRISONBURG, Va. (AP) — James Madison must be making fellow Sun Belt Conference programs wonder “who invited these guys?”

The 18th-ranked Dukes have been the dominant football team in the league since they joined last season, winning 12 of 14 games. That includes a 47-7 demolition of Coastal Carolina last season when the teams tied for the best record in the East Division but James Madison was ineligible for the championship game.

James Madison (10-0, 6-0 Sun Belt ) is making transitioning from a Championship Subdivision team to a Bowl Subdivision team look easy. The only win they can't claim is one from the NCAA, which on Wednesday night denied their request for a waiver of a rule that could keep them from a bowl game without extenuating circumstances this year, as it did last year.

In competition, they are solid. Besides their football prowess, the Dukes won the league’s volleyball and women’s basketball championships last year and have their men’s basketball team (3-0) in the AP Top 25 for the first time in program history. They stunned then-No. 4 Michigan State 79-76 in overtime open the season, won 113-108 in double overtime at Kent State, ending the Golden Flash's 23-game home winning streak, and beat Howard 107-86 when they returned to Harrisonburg. Terrence Edwards Jr. was The Associated Press player of the week.

The football Dukes host Appalachian State (6-4, 4-2) on Saturday, and have already broken the record Georgia Southern set in 2014 for most wins (eight) over Bowl Subdivision teams by a program in its second year of FBS competition. James Madison has nine such wins this season with two games remaining.

“This has been a special year,” coach Curt Cignetti said after a 44-6 victory over Connecticut.

The move to FBS was one many Dukes fans weren’t sure about. They’d won FCS national championships in 2004 and 2016, made deep playoff runs almost annually and that seemed to some a good place to be.

Tom Dulaney Slonaker, former voice of the Dukes, was on the committee considering the change.

“I was one of those who didn’t feel they should do that,” he said while tailgating before JMU beat Old Dominion 30-27. “I wanted them to be (one of) a handful of teams in the nation that actually could recruit, saying, `Where else can you go that you’re going to compete for a national championship every year?’”

A national title may be out of reach for a while and the Dukes also won't be playing for their second Sun Belt football championship in as many years. NCAA rules requires teams moving up from FCS to wait two years to qualify for a bowl game, and the conference has aligned its bylaws to conform to the NCAA's.

The school had requested the waiver of the two-year rule in a letter.

“We’re obviously disappointed in the outcome of the NCAA’s review of our request for bowl relief,” the school, which knew of the rule, said in a release announcing the decision. “We’re saddened for our university community and, in particular, we’re devastated for our football program, the coaches and student-athletes who have orchestrated an amazing season and earned the opportunity.”

Cignetti has made no secret of his feeling that James Madison should be eligible for the postseason, and Dukes defensive lineman Mikail Kamara said after the win against UConn “there is a little bit of bitterness because we feel like we deserve a bowl game. But at the end of the day, we just want to go out there and win as many games as possible and show that we’re a dominant team.”

They’ve left no doubt about that on the field, and not just on offense. The Dukes' defense leads the country in rushing (61.6 yards per game allowed), sacks and tackles for loss.

Even after a 5-0 start, though, Cignetti knew his team had more to give, and he asked for it at halftime of a game at Georgia Southern with his team leading 20-6.

We “really challenged them about as much as you can challenge somebody, just, `Are we a bunch of chokers?′ That’s what Georgia Southern was saying, we choke. And we went out and dominated that second half," Cignetti said.

Message received. The Dukes won the third quarter 21-0 and the game 41-13.

“Good teams play well in the second half,” Cignetti said.

In retrospect, despite initial misgivings, the success is no surprise to Slonaker.

“This team, what has happened is the culture of the leadership of this school has built up an idea of winning that has carried on from way back in 1975 to its current day,” he said, noting that when he became the school's play-by-play voice, “I did 15 games for them before I saw them lose.”

For the past 25 years, much of the leadership has come from athletic director Jeff Bourne, who said the coaches all know the administration’s expectation is that they win at least one conference championship every four years.

“We feel like an important element of the collegiate experience for a student-athlete is to go to postseason play and participate in an event,” Bourne said. "That’s going to create a memory for that young person that’s going to last a lifetime, something that they’re going to draw on for years to come that made that experience extraordinary for them.”

Bourne plans to retire in the spring. Among the highlights under his watch, the school expanded the football stadium to nearly 25,000 seats, though they have frequently drawn more; built the $139.5 million, 8,500-seat Atlantic Union Bank Center as the new arena for basketball; and renovated and converted its Convocation Center into training, competition and academic space for other sports.

Oh, and Bourne also oversaw the move from FCS to the FBS.

“I just I want to be able to look back on it and say we accomplished some really, really special things that created memories for people that’ll last lifetimes,” Bourne said. “And that’s about all you can ask for when you’re in the world of sport.”


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