Much has been made about James Madison reaching the AP Top 25 in their first season of FBS play, as until last weekend, they’ve dominated the Sun Belt Conference. And why shouldn’t a big deal be made?
For every time Virginia Tech moves from the Big East to the ACC and plays for the conference title six times in eight seasons there’s a Maryland or Rutgers who almost a decade since moving to the Big Ten have yet to post a winning conference record.
And the leap from FCS to FBS is just as big, if not bigger. But the Dukes’ initial success is not unprecedented. In fact, the team they’re facing Saturday wrote the book about moving up a level — and then some.
Marshall upgraded from what was then I-AA to I-A after a 1996 season where they won the National Championship and moved into the Mid-American Conference.
They were previously in the league from 1954 to 1968. More than a few snickered at the Thundering Herd’s optimism that they’d be able to pick up where they left off. I mean, this was THE MAC, not some Mickey Mouse League. Didn’t they feel goofy when Coach Bob Pruett’s team ran roughshod over the conference from 1997 to 2003?
Of course, they had more than a few outstanding players. We start with future Hall of Fame wide receiver Randy Moss who landed at the school after off-the-field issues ended his time with Notre Dame and Florida State.
I saw firsthand the dynamo score four touchdowns against good but not NFL-worthy corners at Ball State. They went 10-3 that season and won the league in 1997 back before Moss went pro, but instead of coming back to earth the Herd went 25-1 the next two years behind another first round pick in quarterback Chad Pennington.
Once Pennington was gone, the MAC had to deal with three years of another first rounder, Byron Leftwich, at QB. Six years; Six MAC East Division titles and 5-1 in the Conference Championship Game.
But after Leftwich left campus the Herd went 14-10 in Pruett’s final two seasons. His retirement and the ensuing move to Conference USA was a little tougher of a transition, with seven years before a winning league record and just one conference title in 16 years before moving to the Sun Belt Conference this fall.
So while JMU is enjoying a great start in its new neighborhood, time will tell if Curt Cignetti’s program has the staying power once the Dukes become familiar to all of its foes. But being the new kid in town is nice. Especially when you’re winning.
Virginia (2-4, 0-3 ACC) at Georgia Tech, 7:30 p.m., ESPN
The Cavaliers come off a week-plus of self-reflection and hope they’ve corrected an offense that ranks last in the ACC in passing efficiency while allowing the second most sacks. Conversely, they hope the time off has robbed the Yellow Jackets of their “fired coach bounce” (two straight wins after pink-slipping Geoff Collins).
Jeff Sims is the type of dual-threat quarterback who’s caused issues for the UVA defense: they held Syracuse’s Garrett Schrader to 11 yards rushing but coughed up 60 yards and two TD’s to Duke’s Riley Leonard and 71 with a score to Louisville’s Brock Domann.
Kippy and Buffy aren’t huge fans of Thursday or Friday night games, but they’re making the best of it with a couple of days in Atlanta before driving up I-85 over the weekend: Buffy loves the fall foliage while Kippy is joining his buddy Doug for the Clemson-Syracuse game (it’s on the way home to D.C.).
They’re also kicking off the second half of the tailgating season with a bottle of 2019 Michael David Inkblot Cabernet Franc.
“Dark and decadent, overflowing aromas of juicy blackberry, fig and cinnamon spice lead to a full-bodied palate of strawberry jam, sweet tobacco and cedar,” the winery’s website reads.
“Fruit forward with polished tannins on a remarkably long finish, one sip of this Cabernet Franc will entice you to explore it even further.”
Presto’s Pick: Cavaliers might not want to explore the season any further after a 24-20 loss.
Navy (2-4, 2-2 AAC) vs. Houston, 12 p.m., ESPNU
One week after facing SMU’s Tanner Mordecai for what felt like the 15th time, the Mids meet the Cougars and fifth-year senior Clayton Tune who threw for 316 yards and three scores the last time he was in Annapolis (a 37-21 Houston win).
Navy has had issues against the pass all season (eighth in the AAC in yards allowed and last in defensive passing efficiency) but has shown the ability to put points on the board the last two weeks.
Fittingly the Cougars are favored by three: their average margin of victory this fall is by three points (two of their three losses have been one-possession affairs). Navy meanwhile has been snakebit as of late, going 4-7 in one-score games the last two years.
Presto’s Pick: Midshipmen make it another close win, 29-27.
Maryland (5-2, 2-2 Big Ten) vs. Northwestern, 3:30 p.m., BTN
Good news for the Terps! Quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa’s injury is not season-ending and although his sprained MCL has been aggravated he’ll be a game-time decision. If he can’t go it’s backup Billy Edwards Jr.’s turn, and the Wake Forest transfer is fresh from guiding the offense to a pair of fourth quarter touchdowns at Indiana.
Coach Mike Locksley said Edwards has a “weird athleticism” and compares him to Andy Dalton. And “not just because they’re red-heads.” The Wildcats have been seeing red with five straight losses. Their lone victory this fall was in August and in Ireland against a Nebraska team that fired its coach a few weeks later.
Northwestern ranks 11th in the Big Ten in rushing, 13th in scoring, 12th in points allowed — and they also pull off the double play of ranking 12th on third down conversions and third down defense.
Presto’s Pick: Terrapins become bowl-eligible with a 27-10 victory.
James Madison (5-1) vs. Marshall, 3:30 p.m., ESPN+
The Dukes’ defense tries to recover from giving up 45 points to Georgia Southern, the most they’ve coughed up since allowing 56 to North Carolina in 2016. If you’re looking for an omen, JMU won their next 12 games after the UNC loss to capture the FCS National Championship. The Thundering Herd come to Harrisonburg with the Sun Belt’s top defense against the pass and on third down while allowing the fewest points per game. Can Todd Centeio shake off the turnover bug?
Presto’s Pick: JMU recovers nicely in a 31-16 win.
Howard loses to Delaware State, Georgetown falls at Colgate, Richmond beats Hampton, Morgan State slips at Delaware, William & Mary tops Towson.
Last Week: 5-1.