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Welcome to the FBS, James Madison: How two-time nationwide champions are gearing up for transfer to large time


This fall, James Madison will make its FBS debut within the Solar Belt Convention. With the appropriate timing, the appropriate coach and an instilled tradition of excellence, the Dukes are doing so realizing they are often one of many greater FCS-to-FBS success tales of the fashionable period. 

Sitting within the western a part of Virginia within the Shenandoah Valley, the Harrisonburg-based campus and its athletic division have seen speedy development within the twenty first century. The Dukes gained the FCS (then Division I-AA) nationwide championship in 2004 with head coach Mickey Matthews, and that success helped kick-start an funding in soccer that paid off with seven extra convention championships, three extra FCS nationwide championship sport appearances (2016, 2017, 2019) and one other nationwide title in 2016. 

The on-field success and college’s location have made JMU a ceaselessly talked about candidate for FBS enlargement in years previous. There have been even potential alternatives to make the transfer to the FBS about “10 or 11 yr in the past,” in keeping with head coach Curt Cignetti, however the faculty opted to defer and proceed the constructing course of, each in soccer and different sports activities. 

The cancellation of the 2020 fall season because of the COVID-19 pandemic sparked renewed discussions about the place the Dukes stood within the Division I panorama, and large upheaval within the Solar Belt supplied a chance for JMU to discover a robust touchdown place on the FBS degree. In becoming a member of the Solar Belt, JMU traces up with outdated FCS foes Appalachian State and Georgia Southern, whereas additionally establishing new regional rivalries with fellow Solar Belt newcomers Outdated Dominion and Marshall, each of that are becoming a member of the league from Convention USA. 

Whereas the transfer gives some familiarity, JMU is transitioning to the FBS in unprecedented style. What has beforehand been a two-year transition interval might be tried in only one season. Whereas different packages have used these years to flip the schedule to FBS-level competitors, the Dukes might be enjoying a full eight-game Solar Belt schedule plus a nonconference slate that features a journey to Louisville on Nov. 5. Welcoming the problem of a more durable schedule whereas this system transitions is simply the primary piece of what is already turn out to be an aggressive scheduling philosophy, with the Dukes lining up extra Energy 5 foes in 2023 (Virginia), 2024 (North Carolina) and 2025 (Virginia Tech). 

The correct coach on the proper time

Whereas FBS play — and even making this type of transition — may appear intimidating, there’s little in school soccer that might be a shock to Cignetti. The 61-year-old son of School Soccer Corridor of Fame head coach Frank Cignetti Sr. is closing in on 40 years of faculty teaching expertise in any respect ranges of the sport. From spending 4 years as a large receivers coach and recruiting coordinator for Nick Saban at Alabama, to a seven-year run with NC State as quarterbacks coach (Cignetti helped Philip Rivers and the Wolfpack set a single-season faculty file for wins), the Dukes’ coach has been on the sidelines on the highest degree of faculty soccer. On the opposite finish of the spectrum, Cignetti has expertise at smaller colleges from his time as an assistant at Davidson, Rice and Temple within the late 80s and early 90s. 

Cignetti’s final 11 seasons, all as a head coach, have ready him to information a proud JMU program into its FBS period. He began at IUP, the place his father was the pinnacle coach from 1986-2005, and totaled a 53-17 file whereas main the Crimson Hawks to 3 Division II playoff appearances and a convention title in 2012. He then took over an Elon program that had gained seven video games mixed within the prior three seasons, main the Phoenix to back-to-back FCS playoff appearances and top-25 finishes. That success paved the best way for his rent at JMU, the place he is upheld the usual of nationwide championship competition and now faces the problem of elevating the bar for this system once more with a step up in competitors.    

“There is not any query this a really distinctive problem. All of the locations I have been, I have been blessed. It is ready me for this second,” Cignetti advised CBS Sports activities. “I really feel like daily once we are available we have a plan.”

That plan has helped Cignetti lead JMU to a 33-5 file throughout his three seasons with the Dukes, reaching the nationwide semifinals every season and ending because the nationwide runner-up in his first yr with this system. JMU was one of many few locations within the nation the place the gross sales pitch included becoming a member of a program that competes for a nationwide championship each single yr. Now, that ingrained tradition of success might be a key in serving to the Dukes keep centered on excellence whereas the competitors, and expectations, change with this transfer. 

“That is what I discovered from Nick [Saban] at Alabama,” Cignetti mentioned, referencing JMU’s “process-oriented” tradition. “Who we’re enjoying does not change that end result. Each Saturday, the gamers will anticipate to win.”  

Constructing out an FBS roster 

“Since our [2021] season ended, we have operated like an FBS faculty,” Cignetti defined. 

Because of the NCAA-granted additional yr of eligibility because of the pandemic, JMU’s scholarship numbers had been already up into the 70s, however constructing as much as the FBS customary of 85 scholarships was met with challenges. The switch portal has made issues trickier; specifically, JMU faces lots of the identical challenges that each one Group of 5 packages face when it comes to dropping high guys to different packages. The Dukes have additionally misplaced the sting of being a most popular vacation spot when NCAA guidelines necessitated a participant transfer down a degree to keep away from sitting out a season when transferring out of an FBS program. 

“Like many Group of 5 colleges within the nation, your high one, two or three guys are going to get poached,” Cignetti mentioned. 

Understanding and adapting to the brand new recruiting and roster administration setting hasn’t stunned Cignetti or his workers. A part of working like an FBS faculty is creating a brand new strategy to construction recruiting — an effort helped initially by coaches who’ve seen that transition up shut. Corey Hetherman, now Rutgers’ linebackers coach, was the the AFCA FCS Assistant Coach of the Yr as JMU’s defensive coordinator in 2021 and had prior expertise as an ODU assistant because the Monarchs transitioned from the FCS to FBS within the early 2010s. Examples set by Appalachian State and ODU can provide some steering into navigating that roster administration transition, however JMU is getting into a switch and recruiting setting that’s as unprecedented because the one-year transition itself. 

Finally, Cignetti is aware of a number of the hardships he and his workers have confronted will fade away as this system additional entrenches itself into the material of the FBS panorama. 

“I feel this program will solely enhance and get higher yearly,” Cignetti mentioned, noting that the Dukes have been getting “hammered” on the recruiting path for being ineligible for a bowl sport or convention championship this season. “The following class [2023 cycle], they cannot get hit for that.” 

What to anticipate on the sector in 2022 

The Solar Belt media projected JMU to complete sixth, or next-to-last, within the East Division on the convention’s media days earlier this week. Cignetti quipped that Elon was additionally projected to completed close to the underside of the Colonial Athletic Affiliation throughout his first yr with the Phoenix, just for that workforce to win eight video games and earn a FCS playoff bid. Nonetheless, there’s completely an acknowledgement that the transfer to an FBS schedule has modified the margin for error in relation to wins and losses. 

“Now, each week it’s important to play your A-game,” Cignetti mentioned. “Earlier than, you might possibly play your C-plus sport and get the end result. That is not the case”

It is attainable that Solar Belt preseason ballot voters consider there might be a toll that postseason ineligibility takes on this system in relation to navigating the total Solar Belt schedule. However whereas the Dukes may not be eligible for a bowl sport, that hasn’t modified their focus. A lot of that may be a credit score to the tradition that is been constructed. 

“I do not see our workforce having a difficulty with motivation this yr as a result of the motivation will all the time be profitable on a week-in, week-out foundation,” JMU star defensive lineman Isaac Ukwu mentioned at Solar Belt Media Days. “Regardless of whether or not we are able to win a convention championship or win a bowl sport, as soon as the whistle blows and we get between the traces it will get aggressive it doesn’t matter what’s on the road.” 

Operating again Percy Agyei-Overweight put it much more succinctly. “The usual is excellence at JMU,” he added. “As soon as the whistle begins, it is sport time.” 

There might be challenges if the gamers who’re used to profitable greater than eight occasions out of 10 begin to see that profitable proportion drop in 2022, however expectations are that the workforce and tradition are ok to be aggressive in opposition to everybody on the schedule. The line of defense is a place of power, and whereas the quarterback battle just isn’t but settled heading into fall camp, Cignetti is assured that he has three guys (Colorado State switch Todd Centeio, Billy Atkins and freshman Alonza Barnett) that may all get the job completed. 

With further recruiting courses and additional funding in soccer, it is a program that ought to solely get higher every year. Nevertheless, you do not have to carry off all of the celebrations for achievement till additional down the highway. Whereas the Dukes may not be eligible for a convention championship in 2022, it isn’t loopy to suppose this workforce might be sitting nearer to convention championship competition than what the Solar Belt preseason ballot suggests. 

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