Welcome to a new series in our summer FCS coverage. We'll take a look at each 2016 FCS Playoff quarterfinalist and discuss how their fan base should feel entering this season. Can they make another playoff run? Are they a national title contender? Should they be worried about a drop off?
We'll talk about it all each week for the following quarterfinal teams:
A year ago, no one outside of the James Madison football program and its fan base had the Dukes on the radar to dethrone five-time defending FCS national champions North Dakota State. Sure the Dukes had talent returning, but with early playoff exits and the departures of quarterback Vad Lee and head coach Everett Withers, they didn't look like a national threat.
Enter Mike Houston.
In his first season at the helm, Houston toughened up the JMU program while still maintaining its gaudy statistics offensively. The Dukes didn't lose to an FCS team in 2016 and rode a balanced and deep roster to a national title, defeating Youngstown State 28-14.
JMU's fan base, a vocal and passionate group who put to rest any worry of the atmosphere in Frisco suffering without NDSU there, has waited a long time for its team to break through the playoff woes. Now that they're on top of the FCS world, JMU fans should feel hungry for more.
And here's why:
Even with a 10-1 record in the 2016 regular season, the Dukes were given the No. 4 seed in the playoffs. They were far from a popular championship pick. When they shocked the college football world by upsetting NDSU 27-17 in the semifinals at the Fargodome, most of the national headlines revolved around the Bison losing, not JMU winning.
Some argue NDSU would have won that game if it had potential 2018 NFL Draft picks Nick DeLuca (linebacker) and Nate Tanguay (defensive lineman) healthy. And while many argue the Dukes are favorites to win the FCS title this season, the same amount, or maybe even more, argue the Bison still rule the FCS.
For what it's worth, both JMU and NDSU have loaded 2017 rosters and look to be teams 1A and 1B in the FCS with a distant third.
Nonetheless, the Dukes should be motivated to prove they are not a one-hit wonder. NDSU has been the consistent powerhouse in the subdivision. SHSU has been somewhat close, but hasn't reached the FCS title game since the 2012 season. Towson (2013), Illinois State (2014) and Jacksonville State (2015) all failed to reach the semifinals after appearing in the championship the year before.
But the Dukes have the ingredients for continued success under Houston.
Quarterback Bryan Schor returns as a senior and is one of the more overlooked players in the country at his position. He'll need to find some new weapons in the passing game with three of his top five favorite targets being seniors in 2016. And even without Khalid Abdullah, the Dukes have Cardon Johnson, Trai Sharp and Marcus Marshall, who led Georgia Tech in rushing the previous two years, to lead a devastating running back stable.
The offensive line has some holes to plug, but led by all-American Aaron Stinnie, the Dukes should be just fine with Houston and his staff stressing physicality.
Talent litters the defensive side of the ball. The Dukes return seven of their top 10 tacklers.
A favorable schedule also benefits JMU. A winnable game against FBS opponent East Carolina along with home games against CAA powers Villanova, New Hampshire and Richmond should get the Dukes through the season with one or zero losses (on paper). A showdown with the Bison, who also have a favorable schedule, in Frisco looks like a safe bet.
Of course, a lot can happen in a season.
One year ago seems like a completely different FCS world. But looking back, it makes sense now how JMU leaped to the top quickly. With facilities like Bridgeforth Stadium that seats 25,000 people, being in a rich recruiting area and being a part of power conference, the Dukes had everything they needed to be a main player in the FCS.
They've always had talented teams. It just took a coach like Houston to change the mentality. If he can flip the Dukes into a physical team as quickly as he did, it's scary to think what season two has in store for JMU.
Everything is there for the Dukes to remain a powerhouse in the FCS for many years. It's up to them to prove to everyone that they're for real and 2016 was about them winning and being the best team in the FCS, not about NDSU ending its run of national titles.