It was the culmination of years of scuttlebutt and rumors Saturday morning at the Atlantic Union Bank Center.
James Madison’s recently constructed arena offered a haven from the morning’s November cold, where warm feelings radiated as JMU leadership announced the Dukes’ acceptance of an invitation from the FBS Sun Belt Conference. JMU follows FCS comrades Sam Houston and Jacksonville State in the realignment parade to the Bowl Subdivision after the WAC’s Bearkats and the ASUN’s Gamecocks (both of whom are in the AQ7 scheduling alliance this season) were welcomed by Conference USA Friday.
The Dukes depart CAA Football, which it has dominated in recent history under coaches Mike Houston and Curt Cignetti, after this season in the two-year Sun Belt transition process. They are still eligible to compete for the 2021 CAA regular-season football championship and earn the conference’s auto-bid into the FCS playoffs. JMU will join the Sun Belt no later than July 1, 2023.
“The Sun Belt Conference beckons and the future is bright,” James Madison president Jonathan Alger said to welcome an energetic AUB Center crowd on the school’s Homecoming Saturday.
In another address of the gathering, JMU athletic director Jeff Bourne added, “The level of exposure that will be brought to us by the Sun Belt will be phenomenal.” Bourne continued by mentioning the SBC’s ESPN media rights deal, which drew particularly enthusiastic applause.
Sun Belt commissioner Keith Gill also spoke. “As we were vetting institutions [for expansion], JMU rose to the top of that list,” Gill proclaimed.
C-USA additions SHSU and JSU, as well as JMU in its Sun Belt move, will reportedly be officially considered as “reclassifying institutions” in the 2022 and 2023 football seasons. The Athletic reported this technical terminology Friday in addition to noting the substantial likelihood that the move-up trio plays a mixed FCS/FBS slate annually during the two-year transitional period to full FBS membership. The period will include postseason ineligibility, per the report. All three are still eligible for this year’s FCS playoffs.
In joining the Sun Belt, affectionately known as the #FunBelt by its members, JMU inserts itself among former FCS powers Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, and Marshall, with Marshall also moving in from outside the SBC but within the FBS. The Dukes also reignite an in-state rivalry with Old Dominion, a former CAA Football mate that, like Marshall, has announced migration to the SBC from within the FBS.