I was truly stunned to see the FCS STATS Poll release this week — only four of us out of 157 have James Madison in the No. 1 position on our ballots. And here’s the thing … I can see the argument for North Dakota State at No. 1, and Sam Herder and I will debate that on our weekly podcast (coming Wednesday) because he has since switched his No. 1 vote from JMU to NDSU. But my aim? Is to have the other 153 voters to see and understand the JMU angle of the argument, too. See, I get that the Bison are the defending umpteen-time champs and they’re 4-0. But I don’t think enough people see the JMU argument here.
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So to answer a message I received this weekend … no, I’m not “trolling” in week four by having NDSU behind JMU, even after the UC Davis win. In fact, I haven’t been trolling in way too long. Used to do it a ton as a kid on my dad’s bass boat on Lake Harris in Florida. Great bass lake, Lake Harris, bluegills too. And no, I’m not dishing out a “hot take”, which is not to be confused with a “hot cake”, which is what my 21-year Marine Corps veteran Grandpop Mac used to call pancakes before he’d cook up a mess of them for us cousins when we were kids.
Nope, I’m basing my decision here on reason — pure and simple. I have the spreadsheet right beside me that I worked on this summer to give me a solid comparison. I wanted to see the numbers. This season, James Madison returned more than 20 players who had starting experience, including several who started against NDSU in the 2017 national title game, and several more who played backup roles in JMU’s win over NDSU all the way back in the 2016 semifinals in Fargo. The Dukes were loaded coming back, and haven’t ruined that look yet through four games.
NDSU lost 227 combined starts from its 2018 team that went 15-0, and 548 career starts. That 2018 roster was unbelievably talented, deep and experienced and the injury bug mostly left the Bison alone to tear a gaping hole in the FCS last year. Hell, last year I’d have picked NDSU to take out probably every G5 team and probably at least the bottom-half of most of the P5 conferences. The problem is, this year’s group only returned six full-time starters on offense and defense. The Bison lost a draft-pick QB who started what, 50+ career games? The top two rushers graduated, as did the 1,000-yard receiver — and three starting O-lineman. On defense, there was only a bit more returning to the starting lineup.
So to start with, I saw a vast difference in experience between these two teams from the get-go, post Frisco. JMU had its rebuilding season in 2018, and I think NDSU will ultimately have that this year. Now, has it resulted in a loss yet? Absolutely not, and the UC Davis will ultimately stack up to be a key one, I think. Nobody “rebuilds” the way NDSU rebuilds. Therein lies the reason I put a team with six full-time starters returning in the No. 2 spot on my ballot, which basically is me saying “see ya in Frisco, Bison — again”.
So after four games, why has nothing changed on this ballot? Well, because I think JMU’s the best team in the nation, that’s why. Some of you have argued that losing to West Virginia justifies a drop. And I’ve countered repeatedly that if the Playoff Committee doesn’t drop an FCS team for an FBS loss, why should I do the same on my ballot? So JMU stays put — but I’ll continue to bring up this fact, because it’s a fact that I think NDSU faithful would respect seeing as though the Bison love a physical brand of ball up front. JMU — in front of 62,000 John Denver singing Mountaineer fans — completely dominated the line of scrimmage, both sides. The final tally?: 172 rushing yards to 34. How about 10 rushing first downs to 2? How about 1.4 yards per carry by WVU?
When you talk to FCS coaches and players, the first thing they’ll tell you when the FCS takes on a P5 is mainly what happens up front. Good linemen on both sides are rare. The P5s stockpile them, and FCS teams don’t get the luxury of stockpiling them — both because the P5s naturally hog them and because FCS teams have 23 fewer scholarships. Now … FCS teams have guys in the secondary and skill kids on offense who are comparable to P5 skill guys. Put simply, there’s a whole lot more talented speedy skinny guys out there to recruit than there are athletic, 300-pound linemen. I mean, bears are known in the wild to run between 25 and 30 miles per hour. Want to try to move a bear out of the way?
That’s generally where the P5s dominate an FCS team. Except, in the 20-13 West Virginia loss it was quite the opposite.
Now see, if people who pay attention don’t respect that, that’s fine. If all you see is a seven-point loss, that’s fine too — though I still think we as poll voters should mirror how the Playoff Committee generates the bracket. But that’s just my opinion … and you know how that saying goes without me going R rated (or is it PG-13 these days?). So I didn’t budge JMU and I still think that dominance up front we saw from JMU against a 3-1 West Virginia team is a preview of what all of you fans are going to see all year against FCS competition.
See, I’m not wearing any multi-colored glasses here. I don’t have a pair of JMU’s purple and gold tinted spectacles, nor do have NDSU’s green and gold variety. In fact, I don’t wear glasses (yet) … though if my bass-boat ownin’ dad and my hot-cake cookin’ grandad are any indicator, I probably will be soon. I swear reading Twitter on my phone is like going to an eye exam.
So, it’s not that I think NDSU is bad, it’s that I think JMU is better.
What could change this? That’s easy. If JMU loses a game, this could change quickly. If NDSU loses a game, same there. They both have their challenges coming up. I find it hard to believe NDSU will survive the next five games unscathed, but if the Bison do? They are clearly the No. 1 team in the land and I will vote accordingly, period. But I’d contend they’ll drop at least one, maybe two. Those MVFC road trips to Illinois State, South Dakota State and Youngstown State, and the home game with Northern Iowa? Now that will test a man, and if NDSU gets through that? They’re going to Frisco, who are we kidding? JMU has some tough ones too, though not as difficult a path. I could easily see the Dukes 11-1 heading into the postseason, and man … if NDSU is also 11-1? That’s going to be a tough, tough call for the No. 1 playoff seed.
Splitting-hairs City. It’ll come down to like the 27th tiebreaker in the dusty book of tiebreaking. Anybody have a copy of that book, BTW?
So that’s it, that’s all. Hey, in 2016, prior to the playoffs beginning, I predicted a No. 4 seeded JMU would go to Fargo and knock off No. 1 North Dakota State. Just stating how I view it, just like I did back in 2016. Now let’s see how it all shapes up.
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