From FCS to the Top 25: The Journey of James Madison

Less than two years ago, James Madison made it official they were in agreement to join the Sun Belt Conference, leaving the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision (FCS). They quickly quashed fears and doubts about their ability to stay afloat closer to the top of the NCAA food chain. Last year, they finished 8-3 overall (6-2 in conference play). They were even ranked for one week before losing the next week. They did not get to play in a bowl game.

Now, in the midst of a season full of twists and turns, they are again ranked 25th in the country by the AP Poll and sport a 7-0 record. They are in the driver’s seat in the Sun Belt right now and have championship hopes. They still will not get to play in a bowl game. All that is stopping them from postseason play is NCAA rules on teams moving from division to division. Regardless, the Dukes have turned into one of the newest Group of Five darlings. Their ascent began on December 14, 2018.

Curt Cignetti is hired

After two straight trips to the playoffs with Elon University, now-James Madison head coach Curt Cignetti accepted the head coach job in Harrisonburg. This position opened up after their former coach left for East Carolina. While the Dukes were already an esteemed program, Cignetti has overseen what may be the best period of football in program history.

In James Madison’s final three years of FCS competition, their worst finish to the season was losing in the FCS semifinals with a 12-2 record. After consecutive losses in the semifinals, the move to the Sun Belt was made. James Madison was ineligible for any winter or spring sports championships in the CAA. They have already made up for the “lost” year with championships in volleyball and women’s basketball. They tied for their division lead with Coastal Carolina, but were ineligible due to NCAA transition rules.

Will James Madison be the catalyst for change?

James Madison is not the first school to be subjected to the four-year no-playoffs period for teams transitioning to Division I (or Division I FBS football). For two years in a row, a men’s basketball tournament champion had just transitioned into Division I and were thus ineligible for the NCAA tournament. In 2022, it was Bellarmine, winning the ASUN Championship in its second year of Division I play. Last season, Fairleigh Dickinson were the benefactors of Merrimack being in the four-year transition period. That Fairleigh Dickinson team went on to beat top-seeded Purdue.

James Madison is currently in what may be the best stretch of football they have ever seen. While it is lamentable James Madison cannot play in a bowl yet, that should not deter from the success story. This team is not only holding its own, but establishing itself as a nationwide threat. Curt Cignetti has something special brewing in Harrisonburg. Perhaps the Dukes play on New Year’s Eve in three to five years. This is a potential Cinderella story in the making. Once the four-year period is over, look out for James Madison in bowl season.

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