UConn James Madison Football

James Madison players celebrate after defeating Connecticut last Saturday to improve to 10-0. The Dukes, who were in the same conference as Maine just two years ago, are ranked 18th in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Daniel Lin/Daily News-Record via AP

HARRISONBURG, Va. — James Madison must be making fellow Sun Belt Conference programs wonder “who invited these guys?”

The 18th-ranked Dukes have been the dominant football team in the league since they joined last season, winning 12 of 14 games. That includes a 47-7 demolition of Coastal Carolina last season when the teams tied for the best record in the East Division but James Madison was ineligible for the championship game.

James Madison (10-0, 6-0 Sun Belt) is making transitioning from a Championship Subdivision team to a Bowl Subdivision team look easy. The only win they can’t claim is one from the NCAA, which on Wednesday night denied their request for a waiver of a rule that could keep them from a bowl game again this year without extenuating circumstances, as it did last year.

The Dukes host Appalachian State (6-4, 4-2) on Saturday, and have already broken the record Georgia Southern set in 2014 for most wins (eight) over Bowl Subdivision teams by a program in its second year of FBS competition. James Madison has nine such wins this season with two games remaining.

“This has been a special year,” Coach Curt Cignetti said after a 44-6 victory over Connecticut.

The move to FBS was one that many Dukes fans weren’t sure about. Formerly a member of the Colonial Athletic Association (now Coastal Athletic Association), which includes Maine, they won FCS national championships in 2004 and 2016 and made deep playoff runs almost annually.


Tom Dulaney Slonaker, former voice of the Dukes, was on the committee considering the change.

“I was one of those who didn’t feel they should do that,” he said while tailgating before JMU beat Old Dominion, 30-27. “I wanted them to be (one of) a handful of teams in the nation that actually could recruit, saying, `Where else can you go that you’re going to compete for a national championship every year?’”

A national title may be out of reach for a while, and the Dukes also won’t be playing for the Sun Belt championship. NCAA rules requires teams moving up from FCS to wait two years to qualify for a bowl game, and the conference has aligned its bylaws to conform to the NCAA’s.

The school requested the waiver of the two-year rule in a letter.

“We’re obviously disappointed in the outcome of the NCAA’s review of our request for bowl relief,” the school, which knew of the rule, said in a release announcing the decision. “We’re saddened for our university community and, in particular, we’re devastated for our football program, the coaches and student-athletes who have orchestrated an amazing season and earned the opportunity.”

Cignetti has made no secret of his feeling that James Madison should be eligible for the postseason, and Dukes defensive lineman Mikail Kamara said after the win against UConn “there is a little bit of bitterness because we feel like we deserve a bowl game. But at the end of the day, we just want to go out there and win as many games as possible and show that we’re a dominant team.”


They’ve left no doubt about that on the field, and not just on offense. The Dukes’ defense leads the country in rushing (61.6 yards per game allowed), sacks and tackles for loss.

Even after a 5-0 start, though, Cignetti knew his team had more to give, and he asked for it at halftime of a game at Georgia Southern with his team leading 20-6.

We “really challenged them about as much as you can challenge somebody, just, `Are we a bunch of chokers?′ That’s what Georgia Southern was saying, we choke. And we went out and dominated that second half,” Cignetti said.

The Dukes won the third quarter, 21-0,and the game, 41-13.

“Good teams play well in the second half,” Cignetti said.

In retrospect, despite initial misgivings, the success is no surprise to Slonaker.


“This team, what has happened is the culture of the leadership of this school has built up an idea of winning that has carried on from way back in 1975 to its current day,” he said, noting that when he became the school’s play-by-play voice, “I did 15 games for them before I saw them lose.”

For the past 25 years, much of the leadership has come from Athletic Director Jeff Bourne, who said the coaches all know the administration’s expectation is that they win at least one conference championship every four years.

“We feel like an important element of the collegiate experience for a student-athlete is to go to postseason play and participate in an event,” Bourne said. “That’s going to create a memory for that young person that’s going to last a lifetime, something that they’re going to draw on for years to come that made that experience extraordinary for them.”

Bourne plans to retire in the spring. Among the highlights under his watch, the school expanded the football stadium to nearly 25,000 seats, though they have frequently drawn more; built the $139.5 million, 8,500-seat Atlantic Union Bank Center as the new arena for basketball; and renovated and converted its Convocation Center into training, competition and academic space for other sports.

“I just I want to be able to look back on it and say we accomplished some really, really special things that created memories for people that’ll last lifetimes,” Bourne said. “And that’s about all you can ask for when you’re in the world of sport.”

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