A year ago when James Madison and Richmond met, the ESPN College GameDay crew was there and JMU quarterback Vad Lee was riding a wave of national attention before one of the most hyped FCS regular season games ever.
When that day was over, Lee had gone down with a season-ending injury and Richmond left with a victory.
Fast forward a year to Saturday afternoon. The hype was no where near as high when the same two teams met in Richmond, but the Top-10 matchup might have been much more important.
While both teams bowed out early in the 2015 FCS Playoffs, Saturday’s 47-43 shootout won by JMU raises the question if one of these two teams could make a run at the national title and end the dominance of FCS programs from west of the Mississippi River.
The Football Championship Subdivision, formerly known as Division I-AA, was for a long time largely an East Coast game. Between 1998 and 2009, East Coast teams won all but one NCAA title. The year 2010 began a run of success in the Wild West, starting with a title for Eastern Washington and continuing with a five-year dynasty by North Dakota State.
One reason for the drop-off in quality on the East Coast has been powerhouse programs such as Appalachian State and Georgia Southern making the move to the FBS level. But Colonial Athletic Association programs such as Villanova, Delaware, Richmond and James Madison have remained FCS and simply haven’t been able to reach the heights of the 2000s, when each won a national title.
This season the road to an FCS title seems wide open. North Dakota State won at Iowa early in the year, but since has finally shown some vulnerability with multiple close calls and a loss to South Dakota State.
If the playoffs began today, Sam Houston State and Jacksonville (Ala.) State would be the favorites and the top seeds. The CAA teams, and JMU in particular, are intriguing candidates to challenge for the title. If the Dukes can get past No. 12 Villanova this weekend, they could make an argument for the best resume in the FCS.
Last year ESPN brought its traveling road show to Harrisonburg, Va., because the Georgia Tech transfer Lee was leading one of the nation’s most electric offenses. Somehow the Dukes are even more explosive on offense this season with junior Bryan Schor at quarterback.
The Dukes are averaging nearly 50 points per game and have scored more than 80 twice this season. Schor has completed 72 percent of his passes for 1,918 yards and 18 touchdowns.
The JMU ground game is even more impressive. Khalid Abdullah has already topped 1,000 yards rushing and Cardon Johnson has 704 rushing yards while averaging 6.2 yards per carry.
Even Schor, considered significantly less mobile than Lee last season, has carried for 525 yards and nine touchdowns.
The Dukes are now 8-1 and 6-0 in the CAA. With just a single loss at North Carolina, a game JMU led 21-14 after a quarter, the Dukes are in line for a high seed in the FCS playoffs.
Whether or not the offense can outscore opponents all the way to the NCAA title, particularly when they start running into the powerhouses from out west, remains to be seen.
The door is open. Somebody from the East Coast is prepared to slip through.