Opinions on the football team have shifted quickly in Harrisonburg.
For the first time in the Mike Houston era, there is genuine concern surrounding the Dukes' fate as a playoff team. Fans often have a tendency to hype the highs and wallow in the lows, so there is a predictably dramatic tenor to the current events surrounding the James Madison Dukes (6-3, 4-2). Even still, it's impossible to deny that Week 11 of the 2018 regular season brings an urgency that Madison fans just haven't felt in a while.
Depending on who you ask, JMU is either a young, uber-talented team going through natural growing pains, or an offensive disaster held afloat by its incredible talent on defense and special teams. (Clearly, the purple and gold faithful are not above hyperbole.)
JMU is at a crossroads, and the results of its final two regular season games (Rhode Island, at Towson) could plant the Dukes anywhere from earning a first-round playoff bye to missing the playoffs altogether. So which is it? Are the Dukes still title contenders, or is this team just not as good as we all thought? In true Election Day fashion, I'm here to give you both sides.
Glass Half-Full: Can we pump the breaks on the offensive Armageddon? JMU ranks 15th nationally with 35 points per game. The run game has struggled at times, but Jahee Jackson's return to the field should help. The receiving corps is still as dynamic as any group in the country. The quarterback play hasn't been perfect — Byran Schor is a particularly hard guy to replace — but there's been more good than bad. Both Ben DiNucci and Cole Johnson are skilled players, and most other FCS teams would love to have either one of them. That's a fact.
Glass Half-Empty: JMU's offense needs work. That much is obvious to anyone who's turned on a JMU game in the last month. The line has struggled to run block — the Dukes averaged 1.7 yards per carry on 37 carries at New Hampshire — and ranks 60th in FCS Football in rypg. Quarterback play is inconsistent. These aren't opinions. If JMU has aspirations of continuing its streak as one of the two most dominant programs in FCS Football, it cannot be this unpredictable from game to game. Oh, and don't talk to me about JMU's Scoring Offense — that's the most misleading statistic in FCS Football. When you account for all the incredible scoring plays JMU has made on defense and special teams, the actual JMU offense averages a full touchdown per game less. That would rank the Dukes 57th nationally, tied with Nicholls and just above Harvard and Marist.
Glass Half-Full: Yeah, JMU has lost two CAA games in 2018, but both are learning opportunities that don't necessarily signal disaster on the horizon for the Dukes. Elon was a wake-up call for a coasting team that had outscored its previous four opponents 204-17. You can't take weeks off in the CAA, and these guys know that now. And New Hampshire? The Wildcats are clearly not a 2-6 team with everyone healthy again, and that UNH offense is too good to spot 21 early points off turnovers. Remember South Dakota State's 10-turnover meltdown in last year's playoff? That game was one in a million, and so was Saturday's loss at New Hampshire. It would be extremely unlikely for JMU to turn the ball over six times in one game again. That's a non-recurring event.
Glass Half-Empty: Everyone within 1,000 miles of Harrisonburg knows this offense has been stuck in second gear for weeks, and New Hampshire finally showed us just what it looks like when things don't go JMU's way. The Dukes have played three FCS teams with a record currently above .500 this season; they're 1-2 in those games with a -11 point differential. At this point, losses to playoff-caliber teams aren't exceptional this year — they're statistically likely.
Glass Half-Full: JMU has way more good than bad on its resume. Its total point differential is +202. Villanova and William & Mary are respectable mid-level wins, and Stony Brook is a playoff-caliber opponent. Hysterical bluster about JMU missing the playoffs has virtually no basis in reality, particularly when you consider the committee had them ranked at No. 2 just a week ago. The New Hampshire loss may have exposed or underscored some problems that need addressed, but JMU can't have fallen that far off the map in one short week. Now isn't the time for overreaction.
Glass Half-Empty: 21-31. That's the combined records of the opponents JMU has beaten so far this season. 21 wins, 31 losses. JMU has yet to beat a team that is definitely headed to the playoffs; in fact, JMU has a very real chance of finishing the regular season without a win over another playoff team. Nothing about that is impressive. Nothing about that suggests that JMU is a threat to play a game in December, let alone return to Frisco.
But what about NC State?
Glass Half-Full: You can't fake a close game with a top-25 FBS team. JMU's defense held NC State to under 3.0 yards per carry, and if not for one blown assignment, JMU probably gets the ball back and has the chance for a game-winning drive. To play that well, against a team that good, with more than a dozen players making their first career starts in purple, is starkly impressive. Perhaps more than anything else this season, the NC State loss shows just how high this team's ceiling is.
Glass Half-Empty: Yeah, what about NC State? The Wolfpack have a history of underachieving in September. In 2017, they lost their opener 35-28 to South Carolina. In 2016, they lost to East Carolina in their first game against FBS competition, in a season that saw the Pirates finish 3-9. In 2014, Georgia Southern came within one point of beating them. Using a tight game with NC State as the key litmus test for this JMU team was a great way to end up with an erroneously high calibration for the Dukes.
Glass Half-Full: How could anyone possibly take issue with this defense? It's sick. Even after giving up 35 points to New Hampshire, the Dukes still rank No. 6 nationally in scoring defense at 12.6 points per game. When you consider how young the unit is, and how much better they can still become, this group is absolutely terrifying. When they're done building the statue to honor Mike Houston, they should build one for DC Bob Trott.
Glass Half-Empty: For all the hype JMU's defensive line gets, the Dukes actually rank outside the top 50 in FCS in team sacks. Rashad Robinson hasn't played a down. Jimmy Moreland has been incredible, but the remainder of the secondary just hasn't been nearly as good as the lockdown group from 2017. Nobody is going to call the defense bad, but it's fair to say they aren't quite as mythical as units from years past. And if the offense isn't going to hold up their end, the defense will continue to be put in bad positions, just like on Saturday in Durham.
Okay. So, what's all this mean? Even a fatalist would concede that JMU has more talent than 99% of FCS teams; even an optimist would admit that the Dukes need to iron out some major wrinkles if they want to accomplish the types of goals Madison currently aspires to.
Past that, it's tough to agree on much. Right now, the greatness of this JMU team is in the eye of the beholder, at least until another Saturday is in the books.