James Madison fans have had two weeks to emotionally prepare for this weekend’s big Sun Belt kickoff game at Appalachian State.
The Dukes (2-0) are one of two remaining Sun Belt teams that are undefeated. The college football odds market lists App State as a -7 favorite.
JMU, in the words of head coach Curt Cignetti, “passed its first test,” that test being the Week 1 blowout win against Middle Tennessee on Sept. 3.
With the FBS conference on the horizon, the truly difficult tests now begin. JMU fans are used to sliding down a CAA board that usually offered all the resistance of a wet paper bag; Marshall, App State, Georgia Southern & Co. are a welcome change.
Opinions may vary here, but I am of the opinion that this weekend’s revamped grudge match at Boone is one of the biggest and most memorable games in JMU history. And if you’re familiar with what I often think about JMU Sports, then you probably know that this game got me thinking…
What are the other biggest games in JMU Football history?
Here are the criteria. The result has any do with it I focus on games that loom large when considering both the JMU football story arc and the broader history of college football.
The case for this weekend’s game is simple: JMU has finally hit the FBS soccer scene in a big way. Win or lose, the period that marks this game is one of true national relevance.
If the game ends in an outright victory for JMU, it could serve as a turning point for their immediate future in FBS football. The Dukes can’t win the Sun Belt this year due to transitional eligibility rules, but the “What if JMU I was Eligible?” conversations will begin in earnest.
Recruitment will increase. Media attention will increase. Marshall/JMU becomes very interesting as a College GameDay location…although Penn State and Oklahoma State could still have internal positioning, thanks to their P5 status. (As much as the ESPN staff continues to declare their undying love for Harrisonburg, it’s also hard to imagine the show making it to two Sun Belt games in the same year.)
In short: App State marks the beginning of JMU’s journey as an increasingly powerful team, in the midst of an increasingly powerful conference.
I’d put that up there against some of these historical games to remember:
1. September 6, 1980: App State 34, JMU 6
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: JMU went up a level and then played App State.
Just a few years after Madison College became a coeducational institution, President Ronald Carrier had an idea. If the school had a soccer team, it could more quickly gain recognition as a destination for both genders.
So in 1972, JMU fielded its first college football team.
The team sucked. Understandable.
In their first game, JMU lost to the Shepherd College JV team, 6-0. A week later, the Dukes lost to Salisbury State, 55-0.
Naturally, it took the inaugural head coach, Challace McMillin, a few years to develop his program. The Dukes were unaffiliated at first and later joined the NCAA to compete in lower divisions.
That finally changed in 1980, when JMU was promoted to D1-AA. And their first game was against, you guessed it, App State.
2. December 17, 2004: JMU 31, Montana 21
Mickey Matthews took over as head coach at JMU in 1999 because he saw the potential in a program that had largely lain dormant.
I sometimes wonder if even he was surprised, five years later, when the Dukes became the only D1-AA/FCS team to win a national championship with a series of playoff victories in every road.
The 2004 national championship game legitimized 30 years of growth in Harrisonburg and put JMU on the college football map. Playing for a Division I national championship, the second in a decade in all sports, was a big moment for the show.
More about Madison: JMU +7 does Chase’s College Football Week 4 Best Bets
3. November 24, 2007: App State 28, JMU 27
FCS playoff fans got their money’s worth for this game, as the 2004 championship winner traveled to play the 2005 and 2006 championship winner to open the 2007 playoffs.
JMU took a 27-19 lead with 7:37 left in the fourth quarter, but they couldn’t hold out late. App State kicked a field goal, then saved on fourth down to get the final possession they needed. Armanti Edwards scored the game-winning touchdown with just over a minute to play, and App State went on to complete the three-peat championship.
It was a devastating loss, but JMU fans generally agree with the outcome. Because…
4. September 20, 2008: JMU 35, App State 32
It’s hard to overstate how great this game was. This was an era when FCS football was full of contenders and dominated by East Coast teams in the South and Mid-Atlantic.
App State was the three-time defending champion. They were the consensus number 1 team in FCS.
And they came to Bridgeforth Stadium.
App State jumped out to a 21-0 halftime lead, which was brutally demoralizing. But Scotty McGee returned the opening kickoff of the second half for a touchdown, and JMU pulled off an incredible three-point win.
revenge was so sweet.
5. Oct. 24, 2015: Richmond 59, JMU 49
I came of age as a JMU fan in the most listless part of the Mickeyball era. JMU missed the playoffs in 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2013, then lost a brutal home game to the Liberty in the first round of the 2014 playoffs. I still have nightmares about the Liberty drive in the fourth quarter of that game.
JMU had clearly come off its prime since the mid-2000s. The fanbase was in the desert.
But in Year 2 of the Everett Withers experiment, the team had become an offensive juggernaut. JMU went 7-0, which included a wild 48-45 victory at Southern Methodist, and garnered the attention of ESPN’s College GameDay.
The game itself was a major disappointment: Vad Lee suffered what turned out to be a career-ending injury, and JMU’s undefeated season came to a sudden halt at the hands of arch-rival Richmond. There is nothing worse than that.
But the euphoria of ESPN operating from the Quad, with Wilson Hall in the background, completely blew the ceiling off how much fun was theoretically possible when JMU football was good.
That, as it turns out, was a far more important legacy than a rivalry game against Richmond.
More sun belt: BetMGM Update Sun Belt Conference Championship Odds
6. December 16, 2016: JMU 27, North Dakota State 17
How do our bison friends describe themselves in 2016? Somehow they were more and less scary than the current NDSU.
Here in 2022, North Dakota State has won nine of the last 11 FCS national championships, which is so dominant it’s actually kind of boring. (Even Bison fans now acknowledge this.)
However, in 2016, NDSU was defending an active streak of five consecutive titles. A semifinal game against JMU was all that stood between the Bison and a sixth straight trip to Frisco. NDSU was a giant who deserved the full reverence of FCS. Can they even lose? Is that possible?
Yes, as it turns out. Bryan Schor played an incredible game, and Tyler Gray hit an impossibly decisive field goal at the end to give JMU the lead for good.
JMU’s win at Fargo remains one of the best games the show has ever played, as well as one of the only times none The Division I program has aligned with and surpassed NDSU during the dynastic decade.
is saying that East it’s the game so many Dukes fans remember from 2016, rather than the sleepy championship-game victory against Youngstown State a few weeks later.
7. Jan 6, 2018: North Dakota State 17, JMU 13
It’s still probably the best football game I’ve ever seen.
I still get excited about a lot of things. Strange turnover rebounds. The public address announcer was inexplicably trying to encourage the JMU fans to make some noise while the Dukes had the ball. The fake punt that everyone saw coming… that somehow still worked. The winning drive that only needed about 20 more seconds.
This is the last great game that FCS has produced.
It’s not the last time JMU played NDSU in the playoffs; It’s not even the last time JMU played NDSU in Frisco.
But it was the last epic and historically significant game JMU ever played.
The Dukes hosted College GameDay for the second time in 2017. They had an insanely good defense that was like a college recreation of Seattle’s Legion of Boom. He entered the game on a 26-game winning streak, the longest active streak in Division I college football.
Win or lose, this was the culmination of an epic season. Even then, it felt like a heavyweight battle that would be hard to recreate.
chase kiddy is a staff writer for The BetMGM Roar. If you liked this, you might also like his explanation of how the 49ers playoff odds changed after Trey Lance was injured.