One of the most dominant performances of Week 1 in college football came from a team playing its first game as a Football Bowl Subdivision school.
James Madison knows how to win. The Dukes haven’t had a losing record since 2002 and they’d been a Football Championship Subdivision powerhouse for the past six years, with a 70-11 record. But they were also just 6-22 against FBS teams in their history as an FCS program.
So last Saturday’s 44-7 win against Middle Tennessee was an eye-opener. The Dukes outgained the Blue Raiders 548 to 119 in total yards. MTSU averaged 0.4 yards per rush and 3.2 yards per pass, while JMU averaged 6.6 yards per play. Despite the transition up, JMU had the size and the depth of an FBS team.
“We made a national statement,” head coach Curt Cignetti told The Athletic, before adding, “but that’s no future predictor of what’s going to happen down the road.”
Indeed, the last three FCS schools to make the jump (Liberty, Coastal Carolina and Charlotte) also won their first FBS game. But those wins were against fellow programs recently at the FCS level. JMU’s win came against an MTSU program that went 7-6 last year and has played in six bowl games over the past nine seasons. The Blue Raiders had numerous key starters to replace but are a full-fledged FBS program and have been for some time.
“We understand we’re going to play better teams down the road, but we dominated them on defense,” Cignetti said. “We took it to them.”
JMU was picked to finish sixth of seven in the preseason poll for the newly expanded Sun Belt East division. Along with the transition of a move to FBS, the Dukes needed to find a new quarterback, and two of their most talented players transferred out. Record-breaking receiver Antwane Wells Jr. transferred to South Carolina in January, and FCS All-American linebacker Diamonte Tucker-Dorsey transferred to Texas in late May.
But they also added a few, like former Colorado State and Temple quarterback Todd Centeio, who tied a JMU record with six touchdown passes on Saturday while adding 110 yards on the ground. Centeio started all 12 games at CSU last year and enrolled at JMU this spring. Cignetti decided to go with Centeio late in preseason camp but never announced a starter because MTSU hadn’t announced one either.
“Todd’s played in a lot of big games in high school and college,” Cignetti said. “He settled in after the first series and played well. He had good command, kids looked up to him. He plays tough. … There’s a culture here and an expectation level. There were a lot of questions. I had questions about our team going into the opener and I told the team that. But we went out and gave great effort every play.”
Despite the move up, the Dukes are close to 85 scholarships, just a handful short of the maximum — like many G5 teams dealing with transfers. Does that make the transition easier? The first-year track record of schools making the move is not a strong one.
Of the 15 schools that have moved from FCS to FBS since 2002, only three have had a winning record in their first year. Georgia Southern went 9-3, UTSA went 8-4 (5-4 against FBS) and Appalachian State went 7-5. Meanwhile, Coastal Carolina went 3-9, Georgia State went 0-12, Western Kentucky went 2-10, FAU went 2-9, UMass went 1-11 and Charlotte went 2-10.
For JMU, it comes back to the expectation to win. The culture and program infrastructure are already in place. The Dukes turned down the chance to move to the FBS a decade ago, only moving now because of the changing tides at the top of the sport and the realization they’d outgrown the FCS. There is a lot of season left and more difficult games to play — the predicted Sun Belt East seventh-place team, Old Dominion, just beat Virginia Tech — but maybe the Dukes won’t be the FCS pushover many expected.
“There’s a lot of pride in this program,” Cignetti said. “We understand it’s a new frontier and there are unknowns out there. It’s about us playing to our ability. Everybody feels like we have something to prove, that we belong.”
With the announcement that SIX conference champions would get an invite to the new playoff format, what’s your take on the calculus for fringe P5-invitee Group of 5 institutions? Is it still a no-brainer for SDSU, Fresno, Boise State, Memphis, SMU, etc., to covet a Pac-12/Big 12 invite and potentially face a decade-long, Utah-esque climb to parity with their new conference brethren? Or is there anyone out there that would now actually prefer a lower payout but (potentially) more geographically coherent and easier to dominate league? — Jake Y.
This topic came up in some discussions I had with coaches last year. An example they gave was Sonny Dykes leaving SMU for TCU, when he could perhaps dominate the new AAC post-realignment and have a good shot at the Playoff. But ultimately, these fringe schools have to take the major-conference invitation if they get it. The financial difference between the P5 and G5 is too big, even at the lower levels, not to take it. Fears of some sort of breakaway, real or not, makes anyone want to have a seat in the game of musical chairs.
Utah and TCU are examples of schools whose profiles have risen dramatically since moving into Power 5 leagues. The same will happen to Houston, Cincinnati and UCF. The good news is that the 12-team playoff will bind everyone together, give everyone a fair shot at making the Playoff and just generally be more fun.
Is the G5 dream for a 2022 playoff team already over? The top schools either lost this weekend (Cincinnati, SDSU, Utah State, App State) or have too weak of a nonconference schedule (Houston, UCF, Coastal Carolina) to be considered. Even BYU is undermined by Notre Dame’s and Oregon’s losses. Is there anyone realistically left to rally behind? — Joe S.
It’s time for the G5 nation to rally around the Fresno State Bulldogs. But honestly, the chances of a G5 team making the four-team field are minuscule in any given year. Cincinnati needed all kinds of things to go right for it to happen. While some of those teams you mentioned already have a loss, Fresno State plays Oregon State and USC in the next two weeks. Go undefeated with those on the resume and it will have an argument to make, at least.
That’s obviously very difficult and unlikely to happen, but that’s probably the best shot. An undefeated Houston might still have a chance, but with Texas Tech and Kansas as the only P5 games on the schedule, it could be a tough sell.
BYU is not a G5 team, but I do think the Cougars’ schedule still gives them a path, with top-10 Baylor this week and future games against Oregon, Notre Dame and Arkansas. The Cougars looked really good against USF. Do not rule them out yet.
The suboptimal performances by the Mountain West vs. Power 5 schools in Week 0 and Week 1: big deal, little deal or no deal? — Bruce K.
How does Boise State return to prominence? Because Saturday night was atrocious. — Jamie C.
Taking this first question, it’s different for each school, but overall, I’ll say little deal. Utah State’s blowout loss to Alabama is no deal. Wyoming’s loss to Illinois was no deal because I didn’t expect much of the Cowboys, though the subsequent Week 1 win over Tulsa was a good rebound. We knew Hawaii was going to be bad because of all the roster losses amid the Todd Graham drama, though it’s looked worse than I expected in an 0-2 start.
San Diego State’s 38-20 loss to Arizona? Big deal. That game was never all that close. It may turn out that Arizona is the biggest surprise team in the country, but the Wildcats went 1-11 last year. Even with all their transfers, that was a bad loss for an SDSU team I picked to win its division. Boise State’s 34-17 loss to Oregon State? I say little deal right now only because of the five turnovers. They had no chance because of that. The advanced stats say the game was close otherwise. But it could quickly turn into a big deal if we learn that game and last season weren’t a fluke.
What should the Broncos do after the quarterback change? Typically, I would stick with the experienced Hank Bachmeier. Taylen Green’s passing ability still leaves a lot to be desired. But if Boise State can get only nine yards on 13 carries for George Holani, maybe it needs to stick with the dual-threat Green, who had 102 rushing yards. The lack of a running game, to me, was the bigger issue than the quarterback play.
The Mountain West has had a strong record against the Power 5 and the Pac-12 in recent years, but Saturday was a missed opportunity and could be an indicator of a down year for the league.
After the abomination of an offensive performance by Navy’s offense and its ineptness in three of the past four years, it is time to move on from Ken Niumatalolo. Realistically, what coaches out there would be good fits for the head coach and/or offensive coordinator position (I’d be OK with Brian Newberry as HC)? — Phil D.
Similar to Boise State, Navy’s three fumbles just wrecked its chances against Delaware, but the rushing numbers weren’t good either (2.9 yards per carry). Niumatalolo told me this summer that, with COVID-19 restrictions a thing of the past, this year would tell him if he can still build a team the way he’s used to doing it. The opening loss makes me very worried about the rest of the year.
A year ago, athletic director Chet Gladchuk fired offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper after the second game, before Niumatalolo convinced him to let Jasper back as quarterbacks coach. These are all people who have been with Navy for more than a decade. Could something like that happen again? Memphis, East Carolina and Air Force are coming up in a tough stretch. Niumatalolo has been there long enough and carried the program in a way that he deserves to see it out. As far as future potential coaches, whenever that comes, the first one that comes to mind is Brian Bohannon, the former Navy assistant who is 63-19 at Kennesaw State with a triple-option offense.
What is your perspective on a school like Kent State going “top-heavy” for payday games? — Michael S.
Kent State opened the season at Washington, will play at Oklahoma this week and then will play at Georgia in two weeks. The Golden Flashes aren’t even going back home this week, instead spending the week in Tulsa. For their troubles, the athletic department will get $5.2 million for those three games. Kent State has played three money games since 2018, excluding 2020. A 2018 trip to Illinois was a close game, the rest were not.
The athletic budget is around $30 million, meaning these money games in a given year account for around 15 percent of the budget. MAC programs are heavily subsidized with student fees or other school money (as is most of the G5). The money from buy games is needed. It’s a tough situation to play so many games, though, and having Oklahoma and Georgia in a three-week span brings player health concerns.
Second-year athletic director Randale Richmond didn’t schedule these games and he’d like to move away from it. I get that you have to play money games. But playing three and doing it against these teams is detrimental. MAC schools get only a handful of home games, and some of those are midweek games for TV purposes. At some point, you’re hurting your ability to develop a fan base.
I would also suggest you read this story from my colleague Seth Emerson on why FCS schools play P5 buy games.
Which of the rookie FBS teams will be the first to win a conference championship? — Rick T.
Assuming I’m picking among James Madison, Sam Houston and Jacksonville State here, I’m going to say Sam Houston, and I base this almost solely on the conference. I have no doubt JMU will quickly build into a solid program in the FBS, but the Sun Belt is a tough league. The Conference USA that Sam Houston is set to join should be much easier to win. I actually think there’s a good shot that Liberty becomes the dominant program in that new C-USA, but Sam Houston with its success and recruiting base should contend quickly.
1. Houston (1-0)
2. BYU (1-0)*
3. Cincinnati (0-1)
4. Fresno State (1-0)
5. UCF (1-0)
6. Appalachian State (0-1)
7. UTSA (0-1)
8. SMU (1-0)
9. Coastal Carolina (1-0)
10. UAB (1-0)
Just missed: Air Force, Marshall, East Carolina, Louisiana, Utah State
*Independent teams are not eligible for the Group of 5’s New Year’s Six berth.
Games of the week
American: No. 25 Houston at Texas Tech (-3)
4 p.m. ET, FS1
Pick: Texas Tech
C-USA: UTSA (-2) at Army
Noon ET, CBS Sports Network
MAC: Eastern Michigan at Louisiana (-12)
7 p.m. ET, NFL Network
Pick: Louisiana to win, EMU to cover
Mountain West: Oregon State (-1) at Fresno State
10:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network
Pick: Fresno State
Sun Belt: North Carolina (-7.5) at Georgia State
Noon ET, ESPNU
Pick: North Carolina
(Top photo: Courtesy of James Madison University)