The biggest FCS non-conference game of the season takes place this weekend. No. 9 Weber State hosts No. 3 James Madison at 7 p.m. CT Saturday on ESPN+. The playoff implications, and especially the seeding implications, in this one are big.
JMU was the No. 1 playoff seed in 2017, Weber State was the No. 2 seed in 2018, JMU was No. 2 and Weber was No. 3 in the 2019 bracket, and JMU was the No. 3 seed in the spring 2021 playoffs.
The Dukes look stacked on both sides of the ball for a national title run. And Weber is as talented and has more depth than ever as it continues to build into one of the top programs in the FCS. The Wildcats lost to JMU in the 2017 quarterfinals and the 2019 semifinals.
The result Saturday is going to shake up the race for the eight playoff seeds.
For the higher-ranked JMU squad, this is its chance for a standout non-conference win. Any kind of victory on the road will be a good W on its resume. But a decisive, statement-of-a-performance win is what the Dukes can hang their hat on in November when it comes to determining the Top 2 seeds, which comes with home-field advantage until Frisco.
Montana and South Dakota State have FBS wins. Sam Houston is the defending champs, has every returner coming back, and a 10-0 record (which is more likely than not) against a decently strong schedule is probably going to get the Bearkats the No. 1 seed from the committee.
Montana is going to get its chance at a number of ranked wins in the Big Sky schedule. Same thing for SDSU in MVFC play. The Dukes will as well, with ranked New Hampshire, Villanova, Richmond, and Delaware all in a row beginning the first weekend of October. But Richmond (No. 21) and UNH (No. 23) are near the bottom of the polls, so how long they stay ranked is to be determined as the CAA is likely to have several 5-3 teams in the standings.
So what could separate JMU’s resume on Selection Sunday if it has the same record as SDSU, Montana, or even NDSU? That would be a dominant performance at Weber, who could still go on to earn a seed with a loss Saturday. The committee puts a ton of stock into FBS wins. But what’s more impressive, SDSU hammering Colorado State, or JMU dominating Weber? The committee could go either way with that debate, especially if CSU struggles this season and Weber wins a share of the Big Sky title.
If Weber does lose, no matter in what fashion, its chance at a seed is still alive. Now, being 1-2 heading into Big Sky play is far from ideal. But really, Weber’s playoff resume would be 1-1 with the Utah loss thrown out.
The Wildcats have a favorable conference draw. They get two of their toughest three opponents, Montana State and UC Davis, at home. A road trip to Eastern Washington is not easy. Weber hasn’t lost double-digit conference games since 2016. The Wildcats have gone 7-1, 7-1, 7-1, and 5-0 in the last four years to win at least a share of the Big Sky title.
If Weber loses to JMU, then goes undefeated in the Big Sky, of course it gets a seed. Even with one conference loss, an 8-3 overall Weber team that is 8-2 against FCS opponents and the two losses are to playoff seeds like JMU and EWU, the program has enough respect nationally to possibly get the No. 8 seed, depending on the records of top teams in the Big Sky and other conferences.
Let’s flip it around, as Weber fans probably haven’t enjoyed reading about the hypothetical scenarios of their team losing Saturday.
Here are Weber State’s home records from the spring of 2021 going back to 2015: 3-1, 8-0, 6-1, 5-1, 4-1, 4-1.
With promising young quarterback Bronson Barron questionable to play on an offense that already has a grind-it-out style of play, putting up enough points to beat JMU is going to be tough. But Weber has the defense and the home-field advantage to make this a close game. And if it can grab and hold onto the momentum in what should be a great atmosphere, a win won’t be a shocker (although the general vibe in the FCS community has many predicting JMU to win).
A Weber victory shakes up the national landscape of the FCS. The Wildcats vault into being in that national title discussion along with SHSU, SDSU, NDSU, Montana, and JMU. And the argument for Weber to be a Top 2 seed is strong. Because again, what would be more impressive in the eyes of the playoff committee, SDSU beating Colorado State or Weber beating JMU?
A loss by no means would derail JMU. The Dukes could still run through the CAA, rack up a few ranked wins, finish 10-1 and get a seed. Whether that seed would be in the Top 4 depends on what happens to the other Tier 1 teams. The pressure would then be on the Dukes to not suffer another loss in the regular season.
And hey, there’s always the chance JMU comes out flat and loses to Weber, then runs the table in the CAA while Weber loses twice in the Big Sky and JMU is back in the discussion for a top seed by November.
It’s only Week 3, and there will be plenty of time for the loser of this game to rebound. But the stakes here are still high.
This could be the difference between Weber getting a seed or not getting a seed. JMU narrowly winning or blowing out the Wildcats could be the difference between the No. 2 and No. 3 seed, which could be the difference between winning in the semifinals or losing. If JMU hosts SHSU in the spring semis, do the Dukes lose that game?
This should be a fun one with big-time ramifications.
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Sam’s coverage of the FCS began in 2012 as the sports editor and eventual editor-in-chief of NDSU’s The Spectrum. After graduating in 2015, he spent three years in the newspaper and magazine industry while starting his work for HERO Sports in the fall of 2016 as a freelancer. In May 2018, he joined the website full time as the Senior FCS Analyst.