James Madison moves up and the FCS world they left behind

James Madison University goes from being the big fish in the CAA pond to one of many fish in the SBC lake.

The perennial top 10 Football Championship Subdivision program (eight straight trips to the NCAA playoffs) plays its first fall in Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) this year.

While one doesn’t want to ruin their party, the Dukes have been picked to finish sixth in the Sun Belt Conference’s East Division, right ahead of another Commonwealth school that made the leap to FBS not too long ago (Old Dominion).

Gone are games against Maine and New Hampshire (two states not really known for their college football) and in their place are showdowns with Texas State and Georgia Southern.

Giddy up.

College Football Season Preview

James Madison running back Latrele Palmer (21) is tackled by North Dakota State safety Michael Tutsie (25) and defensive end Tony Pierce (90) during the second half of the FCS championship NCAA college football game, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020, in Frisco, Texas. (AP Photo/Sam Hodde)

The good news is that fourth-year head coach Curt Cignetti returns 56 lettermen from last year’s 12-2 team that reached the national semifinals.

In this mix is preseason All-SBC wide receiver Kris Thornton (83 catches for 1,097 yards and 13 touchdowns) as well as a running back rotation that includes last year’s leading rusher in Latrele Palmer (947 yards on 5.0 per carry), the top back from 2019 in Percy Agyei-Obese (1,216 yards and 19 touchdowns on 4.7 per carry), plus a transfer from Pitt in A.J. Davis (817 in three years with the Panthers).

Who will distribute the ball? Former Temple and Colorado State quarterback Todd Centeio (2,960 yards and 15 touchdowns passing for the Rams last fall) appears to have the edge over redshirt freshman Billy Atkins (14 career passes). The good news is whoever emerges will have three starters back on the offensive line.

Defensively, it’s a different matter as the Dukes lost seven starters in the offseason, including leading tackler Diamonte Tucker-Dorsey (116 stops, 2.5 sacks, four interceptions) who transferred to Texas. Isaac Ukwu (nine sacks last fall) and Jamare Edwards are expected to excel up front.

Rover linebacker Chris Chukwuneke and free safety Sam Kidd each notched 60 tackles last fall. One hopes that Kidd is called on more in pass coverage and less in bringing down players this fall.

The world the Dukes left behind

North Dakota State beat the Dukes in the National Semifinals on the way to the FCS National Championship, and the Bison begin 2022 atop the rankings. The CAA favorite is Villanova (the Wildcats handed JMU their only regular season loss last fall) while Richmond (6-5 in 2021) has been picked to finish fourth in the conference’s preseason poll.

The Spiders’ seven returning starters on offense includes running back Aaron Dykes (516 yards rushing in 2021) and the team has added graduate transfer quarterback Reece Udinski (VMI, Maryland) to direct the offense. Defensively, the Spiders are led by All-American Tristan Wheeler (114 tackles, one sack, and two interceptions last year).

William & Mary (6-5) was picked fifth in the CAA Preseason Poll but received a pair of first place votes and returns running back Bronson Yoder (622 yards rushing in 2021) as well as defensive lineman Nate Lynn (led the CAA with 12 sacks last year).

Towson (4-7) has reloaded at quarterback with UAB transfer Tyler Johnston III. The senior threw for 2,250 yards and 17 touchdowns while leading the Blazers to a 9-5 record and a trip to the Conference USA Championship game in 2019, but attempted just 49 passes last fall.

Georgetown (2-8) ended 2021 with a four-game losing streak and the Hoyas were picked to finish sixth in the Patriot League Preseason Poll. Leading passer Pierce Holley (61% completion rate for 1,260 yards) has his top target Joshua Tomas (57 catches for 732 yards and 4 touchdowns) back and leading rusher Joshua Stakely returns for his senior year.

Justin Fonteneaux (63 tackles in 2021) and David Ealey III (48 stops) lead the defense while Ibrahim Kamara (two sacks) will be expected to provide pressure up front.

Howard has already played its 2022 opener, losing a Week Zero showdown with Alabama State 23-13 in Atlanta. The Bison went 3-8 last season but boasted the MEAC’s second-most prolific passing game.

Senior quarterback Quinton Williams (141 yards passing in the loss) has his top target Antoine Murray back for his senior season. The difference-maker might just be Eden James, the son of Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Edgerrin James. But let’s be patient: Eden was held to 15 yards on five carries in the season-opener.

Dave Preston

Dave has been in the D.C. area for 10 years and in addition to working at WTOP since 2002 has also been on the air at Westwood One/CBS Radio as well as Red Zebra Broadcasting (Redskins Network).

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