In just its second season as an FBS football program, James Madison has achieved an unprecedented 6-0 start, becoming the first team to do so while making the transition from the FCS to the FBS.
The Dukes have already defeated five FBS opponents this season, the most by a team in the second year of transition, and they’ve won nine consecutive games dating back to last season, the sixth-longest active winning streak in the FBS.
But unless there aren’t enough 6-6 or better teams to fill 82 spots in 41 bowl games at the end of the regular season, the Dukes will probably be sitting at home again this postseason. Under NCAA rules, teams making the transition from the FCS to FBS are ineligible for the postseason the first two years.
The NCAA denied the school’s appeal to complete the two-year transition in only one year on April 27. James Madison was the first school to appeal the two-year period.
“It was a very difficult decision to have to take, even though we did know ahead of time that we had two years in front of us,” James Madison athletic director Jeff Bourne said. “The reason I say that is that things change, right? Circumstances change, environments change. I think there are waivers that are out there and put in place for a reason, and they’re put in place for teams just like where JMU was this year.
“I can’t think of another institution that’s been able to do what we’ve been able to do or was really as prepared as we were to move into this transition, so I do consider us very much an exception in that light.”
The Dukes also aren’t eligible to play in the Sun Belt Conference championship game, despite being the only team that’s still unbeaten in league play. Sun Belt bylaws don’t permit teams ineligible for a bowl to compete in the league championship game.
James Madison coach Curt Cignetti is holding out hope that “common sense prevails,” and an NCAA committee — or the Sun Belt Conference — eventually changes its mind about not allowing the Dukes to compete in the postseason.
In his first team meeting before this season, Cignetti told his players, “Look, we’ve got to take control of what we control, control the controllables, and if we take care of that, then a lot can happen.”
“I’m a firm believer that common sense overrides all the rules,” Cignetti said.
Cignetti also realizes the odds of the NCAA reversing its denial of the Dukes’ bowl waiver request are probably longer than Iowa’s offense scoring 30 points in a game, USC’s defense making back-to-back stops or Texas A&M winning a road game.
“I want to play in the conference championship game,” Cignetti said. “That’s our goal — to be the conference champ. We already beat last year’s champ [the Dukes won 16-14 at Troy on Sept. 16]. We want to play for the conference championship at JMU. But there’s a lot of football to be played, so let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.”
The Dukes certainly can’t look past Thursday night’s game at Marshall (7 ET/ESPN, ESPN App), which has never lost to James Madison. The Thundering Herd are 3-0 in the series, including a 26-12 victory last season in which James Madison led 12-2 after the first quarter. The Dukes still play road games against surprising Georgia State on Nov. 4 and Coastal Carolina on Nov. 25.
“I feel like we need to stay grounded, never get too high and never get too low,” JMU quarterback Jordan McCloud said after last week’s 41-13 rout of Georgia Southern. “Keep on handling what we can control and definitely stay away from the outside noise.”
Regardless of what happens at the end of the regular season, one thing is clear: James Madison has already proved itself as an FBS program, and it’s just getting started.
The Dukes have won 14 of their first 17 games as an FBS team, including nine of their first 11 Sun Belt contests. This season, they defeated Virginia 36-35 on the road, throwing the winning touchdown with only 55 seconds left, and won 45-38 at Utah State.
JMU’s defense leads the FBS in run defense, allowing only 42.8 yards per game, and is tied for third in sacks with 26. Senior Jalen Green is third in the FBS with eight sacks.
“Probably the best defense that we’ve seen, and that’s including NC State,” Marshall coach Charles Huff said. “They’re good. That’s not a pump-’em-up, make-’em-feel-good thing. You look at their stats, you look at their consistency. You look at the players they have on all three levels. You look at the scheme. It’s going to be a challenge.”
After suffering a three-game slide in the middle of the 2022 season, the Dukes haven’t lost since.
“There’s been a great tradition here, an outstanding winning tradition,” Cignetti said. “I think there’s an expectation level, a sense of responsibility among the players, to maintain and uphold that tradition. I think we’re ready from a facility standpoint, a budgetary standpoint, and really a talent standpoint. There were unknowns. How are you going to size up against Appalachian State and those people? But our guys compete hard and they believe they’ll win.”
Cignetti points to the 2022 opener against Middle Tennessee, a 44-7 victory, as the turning point that gave his players the confidence that they could compete at the FBS level. Three weeks later, the Dukes fell behind 28-3 at Appalachian State but rallied for a 32-28 victory.
“That game there, I think if there were any doubts in any of our guys’ minds, that erased the rest of the doubts,” Cignetti said.
There were also doubts about Cignetti when he arrived at James Madison in December 2018. A former quarterback at West Virginia in the early 1980s, Cignetti seemed to be on the path of a career assistant. From 1983 to 2010, he coached at Pittsburgh, Davidson, Rice, Temple, NC State and Alabama, where he was part of Nick Saban’s first staff.
At the age of 50, Cignetti decided to make the leap in becoming the head coach at Division II Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 2011. His father, Frank Cignetti Sr., had a 182-50-1 record at the school from 1986 to 2005. Frank Cignetti Sr., who was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2013, died in September 2022 at 84.
Cignetti’s brother, Frank Jr., is the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Pittsburgh.
“I didn’t want to go out as a career assistant,” Cignetti said. “I always felt like I could be a really successful head coach. I had learned a lot, obviously, from my dad. I learned from Johnny Majors, everybody I worked for, but learned a ton from Nick [Saban], and it was just time for me to take that chance. And there were a lot of mornings I woke up and thought I was crazy and, ‘What did I do?’ Because you’re taking a big pay cut, too, but it worked out.”
Cignetti inherited an IUP team that had lost 10 of its last 14 conference games the previous two seasons under former Illinois coach Lou Tepper. The Crimson Hawks went 7-3 in his first season in 2011, then won a Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference title and reached the Division II playoffs with a 12-2 mark the next year. His teams went 53-17 over six seasons.
Cignetti jumped to another challenge at FCS program Elon in North Carolina in 2017. The Phoenix went 2-9 in 2016, their fifth straight losing campaign. They went 8-4 in Cignetti’s first season, defeating four nationally ranked teams and reaching the FCS playoffs. The next year, Elon upset No. 2 James Madison 27-24 on the road, ending the Dukes’ record 20-game winning streak in the Colonial Athletic Association and a 19-game home winning streak, the longest in the FCS at the time.
When East Carolina hired James Madison’s Mike Houston as its coach in December 2018, Bourne had a pretty good idea of who he wanted to replace him.
“He’s an individual with incredibly deep football acumen,” Bourne said of Cignetti. “I mean, he grew up in a football family. His dad was a phenomenal coach, both sons are really good coaches. I saw how well-prepared they were when they played us earlier. He’s a guy that just loves the game of football and is really well-prepared for games. I think they’re good teachers, but boy, they’re excellent at preparing for the opposition.”
The Dukes went 37-6 and won the 2016 FCS national championship under Houston. Cignetti guided James Madison to CAA titles in each of its last three seasons in the FCS, reaching the FCS national championship game in his first season in 2019. The Dukes lost to North Dakota State 28-20.
Since the start of the 2019 season, James Madison is 47-8, winning 85.5% of its games. Only two-time defending national champion Georgia (91.7%), Ohio State (88.7%) and Alabama (88.3%) have a higher winning percentage over the past five seasons.
Only one of those programs is in danger of missing the postseason this year. Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares, a JMU alumnus, even weighed in on the Dukes’ plight, writing a letter last month to NCAA president Charlie Baker, imploring him to allow James Madison to play in a bowl game.
The letter didn’t work.
Baker responded to Miyares in a letter on Wednesday, congratulating him on JMU’s 6-0 start and writing that the Division I Transformation Committee ordered a review of the FBS membership requirements over the past several months, which led to the “adoption of significantly increased financial aid requirements and an increased fee to reclassify from FCS to FBS.” The increased fees will not apply to JMU, according to Baker.
“The Division I Board of Directors and council believe clear standards and timelines for reclassification processes will promote strategic membership growth and allow for a uniform experience for all reclassifying institutions,” Baker wrote. “The board and council agreed that if changes to the FCS-to-FBS reclassification process are warranted, these should be handled through legislation that applies to all schools reclassifying from FCS to FBS.”
Miyares spokeswoman Victoria LaCivita said, “The Attorney General is disappointed with the NCAA’s response and stands by the point in his letter.”
If the Dukes keep winning, they won’t be afraid to call themselves Sun Belt Conference champions, even if they can’t play in the postseason. Last season, James Madison and Coastal Carolina tied for first in the Sun Belt East with 6-2 records in conference play. The Dukes couldn’t play in the championship game, but still declared themselves “Kings of the East” because they crushed the Chanticleers 47-7 in the regular season.
“We’ve got to just take care of the day,” Cignetti said. “The kids have been really focused, the organization’s focused. Stay focused, stay humble, stay hungry, have good practices, put it on the field on Saturday. Play physically, smart and with a lot of energy and poise, keep getting the result we want and let’s see what happens. You know what I mean? There’s no telling.”