The last matchup of the series was one of the best.
North Dakota State took a 20-14 lead over James Madison early in the fourth quarter in December’s FCS semifinals, then held on for dear life as the Dukes charged back late. Destin Talbert picked off a Cole Johnson pass in the end zone with about three minutes left, and the Bison advanced. They then romped over Montana State 38-10 in the final to claim their ninth national title in the last 11 seasons.
That NDSU’s stiffest title test came from JMU was no surprise. Not including 2021’s spring season — in which NDSU’s star quarterback Trey Lance opted out, and a shorthanded Bison team was eliminated in the quarterfinals — the Bison are 18-1 over the last five FCS playoffs: 3-1 against JMU (average score: NDSU 21, JMU 19) and 15-0 against everyone else (average score: NDSU 38, opponent 10). Aside from perhaps South Dakota State, JMU was the only FCS program that had proven it could hang with the Bison from the perspective of depth and physicality. NDSU remains the predominant FCS program, but JMU was an obvious No. 2.
The loss in Fargo was James Madison’s last game as an FCS program. The Dukes are starting their FBS life as one of four new Sun Belt members this fall. While NDSU remains in FCS with what appears to be an increasingly bored fanbase, JMU is signing up for what might be a run of .500 seasons as they build depth and attempt to compete in the Sun Belt East, maybe the toughest division in the FBS’ Group of Five conferences. And their fans couldn’t be more excited.
Becoming your own boss at age 50
By any measure, Curt Cignetti’s football-coaching career was going rather well. Lengthy stints as quarterbacks coach at Pitt (1993-99) and NC State (2000-06) had given him the clout to attract Nick Saban’s attention, and in 2007 he became part of Saban’s first coaching staff at Alabama. He served as both receivers coach and recruiting coordinator, helping to build the recruiting apparatus that has become so important to Saban’s incredible tenure in Tuscaloosa. Alabama won the national title in 2009, and he oversaw both the recruitment and development of stars like Julio Jones.
In 2011, after four impressive years at Bama, Cignetti took a leap that looks no less jarring now than it did then: He moved back to western Pennsylvania to take over the Indiana University of Pennsylvania football program.
To be sure, IUP is a powerful Division II program. Under Cignetti’s father Frank, the Crimson Hawks reached the Division II playoffs 13 times between 1987 and 2002 and twice reached the championship game, losing once to North Alabama and once to those dastardly NDSU Bison.
Still, Cignetti had left a cushy and comfortable gig for the bus rides and cramped football offices of Division II. Why?
“I was hitting the big 5-0, and I was tired of being an assistant coach,” the now-JMU coach said. “I learned a lot from a lot of people — but in particular Alabama and from my dad, obviously — and I was just ready to be a head coach.
“It was a big risk — it was an unconventional risk. There were many mornings early on when I woke up and thought I was nuts for doing what I did. That’s probably a move not too many people have ever made in this profession. But it worked out.”
After a solid first season in charge, Cignetti officially got IUP rolling again. The Hawks went 12-2 in his second season, winning the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference title and a pair of playoff games — they won at least nine games in three of the next four years as well. That earned him a jump up the ladder to FCS’ Elon. The Phoenix had won a total of 11 games from 2012 to 2016, but he immediately turned the program around, winning 14 games and snaring back-to-back playoff bids in 2017-18.
In 2018, Elon scored a 27-24 upset of JMU, the program’s only win over the mighty Dukes in 10 tries. A couple of months later, JMU hired Cignetti to replace the outgoing Mike Houston. He didn’t need an adjustment period there, either: JMU has gone 33-5 in Cignetti’s three seasons in charge, and the five losses — which include two to NDSU and one to FBS’ West Virginia — came by a total of 25 points. Both Cignetti and JMU were ready for a new challenge, and the opportunity presented itself at a perfect time.
When they knew
Jeff Bourne brought his own FBS experience to the table, too. Before taking over as JMU’s athletic director in 1999, Bourne served in a number of roles within the Virginia Tech athletic department during the Hokies’ football rise under Frank Beamer, then spent two years as Georgia Tech‘s senior associate athletic director, a tenure that coincided with the Yellow Jackets’ top-10 finish in 1998. He knew there would be an opportunity for JMU to make the FBS jump at some point.
“The move is something we had always prepared for,” he said. “It strategically felt like there would be a point in time when an opportunity would come along that made good sense to the university. And we had built our infrastructure to a point where we felt like, once we did make the move, we could be competitive. We had modeled our infrastructure off of a lot of Power Five institutions with regard to student support centers. We just recently finished the construction of the Atlantic Union Bank Center [the home of their basketball programs], and it includes a practice facility and full support operations for (the teams).”
When Oklahoma and Texas announced they would soon move to the Southeastern Conference last summer, it created a fierce domino effect. The Big 12 responded by plucking three schools away from the American Athletic Conference, which in turn took six from Conference USA. In C-USA’s moment of vulnerability, the Sun Belt — which had itself lost a number of schools to C-USA during the last major round of conference realignment — pounced. It eventually added Old Dominion, Marshall and Southern Miss from the C-USA ranks, which made it an awfully appealing landing spot for JMU as well.
“We had been watching what the fallout had been with Texas and Oklahoma,” Bourne said, “and we had anticipated that it was gonna take some type of significant event to create opportunity at a level where it would be beneficial for JMU to explore options. Up until this past year, it didn’t seem very feasible because there wasn’t really an ideal landing spot for us.
“This opportunity with the Sun Belt was fortuitous. We felt we were prepared and the timing was good. And the institutions they wanted to align with made it attractive for us.”
Was there any hesitation? Not as far as Cignetti was concerned.
“I think it was all a slam dunk,” he said. “We felt like we had outgrown the [Colonial Athletic Association] a little bit and were ready to make that FBS move, and not only in football. There are a lot of championship programs here. We felt like we had a great brand as an athletic department and a football program, and other sports and other people felt that way too.”
JMU’s move up didn’t come as a surprise to those around college football.
“In many ways, JMU’s total athletic department and institution share more in common with many other FBS schools,” said Matt Brown, publisher of the Extra Points newsletter and contributor to D1.ticker, a publication based on the industry of college athletics. “You look under the hood, and you say, yeah, that is a peer to App State in many ways. That transition is easier. That’s not always the case for a school at an FCS institution that happens to be really good at football.”
“I feel more at ease every single day with this transition,” Cignetti said, “unlike more than 12 years ago, where I really questioned myself early on.”
Readiness and recruiting
Cignetti references his own FBS experience as a reason to hope the Dukes will make a safe and competitive jump, but a recent (and temporary) NCAA rule change might help. Typically, FCS programs play with only 63 scholarship players, and it takes time to build depth and move toward the 85-scholarship limit that FBS provides. But “because of COVID and everybody getting an extra year [of eligibility],” Cignetti said, “we actually played last year at about 74 scholarships. Now most of the Group of Five schools, because of what’s going on in the [transfer] portal, are having a hard time getting 85,” but over the summer they were hovering around 80.
JMU got a definitive taste of how the transfer portal can work in the FBS ranks when stars like 1,200-yard receiver Antwane Wells Jr. (South Carolina) and 116-tackle linebacker Diamonte Tucker-Dorsey (Texas) left for power-conference programs this offseason. While that’s a compliment of sorts, Cignetti isn’t thrilled — “Yeah, we’re not getting any trophy for that,” he grumbled.
But he also made some portal additions of his own. JMU brought in veteran quarterback Todd Centeio (Colorado State), a high-level FCS receiver transfer (Monmouth‘s Terrance Greene Jr.), a couple of senior defensive linemen and a number of younger players from FBS schools.
“The other difference is, now you’re going to play FBS schools week in, week out,” Cignetti said. “We’ve always been highly competitive — we won the last two times we played Virginia and Virginia Tech, we played East Carolina in my first game here and beat ’em, and we took West Virginia down to the last play [in 2019]. But then we would have a few FCS games. This is where depth becomes important. And the standard of importance — you can’t play your C+ game now and get the [win]. You’ve gotta play your A game every week.”
Regardless, Cignetti has reason to feel better about his roster situation than most FCS coaches do on the verge of the jump. That’s one box checked. The next box: facilities.
“We’re stretched this first season — we’re stretching as far as we possibly can — but I think some additional changes to our football offices and complex will happen over the next two or three years,” Bourne said. “And we’re not doing this in isolation: We have 17 programs out there that we are having to make sure they have the resources they need.
“One of the worst things I think I’ve seen happen is that programs make a change, and then they get two or three years in and they can’t fund what they’ve started. That’s not how we’re going to operate.”
Cignetti knows these types of changes don’t come overnight.
“The biggest thing, really, is just … a move like this costs money!” he said. “Coaches are impatient because they’re paid to win, so you want everything right now. You want a recruiting department right now, and there’s some other things you want right now, but those take time. Those take a couple years before you really have your organization in place and where you have everything that everybody else has in the conference.”
The enthusiasm gap and the future of FCS
Even Nick Saban has had to deal with bored fans. College football’s greatest coach has on multiple occasions attempted to deal with the issue of Alabama fans leaving easy wins early. It is the most college football first-world problem imaginable, and a version of this seems to be afflicting NDSU as well. The Fargo Dome still hosted some of FCS’ largest crowds in 2021, but it’s difficult not to notice a trend: In 2018, NDSU averaged 18,106 fans at each home game. In 2019, it was 17,440, down 4%. In 2021, it was 15,101, down another 13%.
“There’s something to that that nobody will say on record,” Brown said. “You used to not be able to get a ticket. You can get a ticket now.”
JMU, meanwhile, averaged 19,631 last season and is on the verge of setting a program record for season ticket sales this summer. And the home slate doesn’t even include Old Dominion or Appalachian State yet.
The powers-that-be — to the extent that there are powers-that-be in college football — are discussing major structural changes to the top of the sport’s pyramid, and no one really knows how things will take shape. Powerful figures have been left to gossip and guess. Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney wants a “complete blowup” and a top division of 40-50 teams. Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith suggests something with a bigger umbrella, focusing on the programs that can offer 85 scholarships. With quite a few cases challenging the basic tenets of amateurism within college athletics, the court system will have a large say on how things come together as well.
Whatever happens, the effects will trickle down to every level of the sport. And for Bourne, that made it even more important to pounce on the opportunity to align with strong, regional, mid-major programs.
“I think the future of how [college football is] aligned and what we’re able to do at the conference level is gonna be dictated by resources,” he said. “Those resources may be centered in two or three conferences around the country. It may limit the resources that are available somewhere else. But our goal will be to navigate and work within the Sun Belt and be competitive there.”
In the end, simple geography has perhaps put JMU in a better position than its FCS superior up north.
“I think one of the issues that you have to look at is, what does the geographic footprint look like for competition?” Bourne added. “What does it take to get there, travel-wise? We felt like the Sun Belt was a great partner. If you’re talking to [athletic director Matt Larsen] out at North Dakota State, what does an FBS league look like for him? That’s one of the advantages of being in the east, is that we’re close to institutions and closer to competition, which makes it more feasible for us to consider some options.”
For NDSU, the most geographically sensible FBS conference would be either the MAC or the Mountain West. The former stretches primarily through Ohio and Michigan, and the closest school, Northern Illinois, is 600 miles away. The latter stretches throughout the Mountain and Pacific time zones (and Hawaii), and the closest school, Wyoming, is 800 miles away. Conference USA would likely take the school in a heartbeat, but the geography isn’t any better there, and it has some obvious stability issues at the moment.
“This is the most successful program, with the best infrastructure and one of the most developed fan bases — kind of a run-on-autopilot football program,” Brown said of NDSU. “Put them in the MAC tomorrow, and 63 scholarships aside, they’re making a bowl game. But if you’re the AD, if you’re one of the [major] boosters, you have to realize, ‘I shouldn’t take something just to take it.’ You have great basketball, and you’re very good in other sports. Do you want to increase your financial [burden] and your travel and your missing class, and this financial commitment for something where there’s just so many uncertainties?”
NDSU has clearly chosen to stand pat. JMU did the same until a great situation arose. But it will be interesting to see what happens if the Bison continue to win, and attendance continues to slide.
“This isn’t the same FCS as it was a decade ago,” Brown noted. “James Madison is a peer program and they’re leaving. App State left. Marshall left [long ago]. FCS keeps expanding with Division II teams like Merrimack, and some of the other perennially strong programs in the Missouri Valley are facing some institutional challenges, like Youngstown State.
“I don’t think it’s irrational for a fan to [notice], ‘Everyone is leaving, and the title itself is becoming less meaningful, and the level of investment among our peers is declining.”
That’s not a problem for JMU anymore. The Dukes have now made a move that quite a few other peers made through the years, trading annual contention for a second-division national title for a focus on fun, regional rivalries, the opportunity to occasionally trade blows with the sport’s biggest powers and a bigger checkbook. And no matter how things play out from here — whether the Dukes immediately win big or pay their dues with .500 (or worse) records for a while — Bourne understands the course ahead.
“For me, I have to keep my headlights on, and we’re gonna drive in our own lane,” he said. “We’re gonna do what it takes to be competitive with the Sun Belt schools and work with that group to let it help navigate our future.
“It’s about building sustainable programs that have great rivalries. That for me is the key, and I’ve always kept that in mind, whether we were at FCS or looking at FBS.”
Sustainability, rivalry and fun football. The sport could use as much of that as possible right now.