Saturday night’s game between James Madison and Old Dominion puts the Sun Belt preseason favorite (JMU) up against the team picked to finish last in the conference (ODU) before the season.
While JMU has lived up to the hype – the Dukes are 7-0 and 4-0 in the SBC – the Monarchs (4-3, 3-1 SBC) are well on their way to proving preseason pundits wrong.
Can Old Dominion, which is coming off an upset victory over App State, put up a fight against JMU?
College football betting odds suggest no, with the Dukes nearly a three-touchdown favorite against the Monarchs. Still, games aren’t played on paper, and the Monarchs have done well this season to outperform expectations. They’ll need a special performance to upset the Dukes, but crazier things have happened.
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Arguably JMU’s biggest strength is the team’s defensive line. Three players have more than 10 tackles for loss this season, including standout edge rusher Jalen Green. The senior racked up five sacks against Marshall last week, giving him 13 for the season. He also paces the team with 18 tackles for loss.
JMU leads the country in sacks with 34. Old Dominion, on the other hand, has yielded 38 sacks. That’s the worst mark in the FBS.
The Dukes’ typical edge of rushing the passer and creating negative plays in an opposing backfield appears magnified heading into this weekend. Old Dominion struggles to protect its quarterbacks consistently, a huge concern entering this game.
If Old Dominion wants to pull the upset, the Monarchs need to keep Grant Wilson upright.
JMU, on the other hand, could completely control Saturday’s game by generating pressure on the quarterback and putting Old Dominion behind the chains. The Monarchs’ offensive scheme thrives when running at a quick tempo, which could lead to some quick three-and-outs if the offensive line doesn’t hold up.
The Monarchs will also need improved passing defense. They’ve allowed 13 passing touchdowns and only have three interceptions, a rather disappointing effort from the defense’s secondary.
Old Dominion excels at stopping the run, which will likely lead to JMU opting to lean on quarterback Jordan McCloud and the passing game. McCloud is building a Sun Belt Player of the Year case, ranking second in passing efficiency among league quarterbacks.
Old Dominion’s Hope
On the plus side for Old Dominion, the Monarchs are dangerous when they take care of the football. In the three games this season when they didn’t commit a turnover, the Monarchs are 3-0 with notable league wins over Louisiana and App State.
Unfortunately for Old Dominion, turnovers were their undoing in losses to Virginia Tech and Marshall. Takeaways – the Monarchs gave the ball away five times – nearly cost them against Texas A&M Commerce, too. Old Dominion eked out a 10-9 win in that contest.
If Old Dominion avoids self-inflicted mistakes, it’s one of the feistier teams in the Sun Belt. The Monarchs will need to protect the football Saturday to beat the Sun Belt’s only undefeated team. If Old Dominion wins the turnover battle – the Monarchs have done that just twice this season – it’ll have a chance to make this a four-quarter game.
For JMU, there are clear matchup advantages that give the Dukes an obvious path to 8-0, but the Dukes will need to avoid sloppy mistakes to stay unbeaten.