James Madison’s soar, North Dakota State’s reign and the FBS vs. FCS conundrum

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The final matchup of the sequence was probably the greatest.

North Dakota State took a 20-14 lead over James Madison early within the fourth quarter in December’s FCS semifinals, then held on for expensive life because the Dukes charged again late. Destin Talbert picked off a Cole Johnson move ultimately zone with about three minutes left, and the Bison superior. They then romped over Montana State 38-10 within the remaining to assert their ninth nationwide title within the final 11 seasons.

That NDSU’s stiffest title take a look at got here from JMU was no shock. Not together with 2021’s spring season — through which NDSU’s star quarterback Trey Lance opted out, and a shorthanded Bison group was eradicated within the quarterfinals — the Bison are 18-1 during the last 5 FCS playoffs: 3-1 in opposition to JMU (common rating: NDSU 21, JMU 19) and 15-0 in opposition to everybody else (common rating: NDSU 38, opponent 10). Other than maybe South Dakota State, JMU was the one FCS program that had confirmed it might hold with the Bison from the angle of depth and physicality. NDSU stays the predominant FCS program, however JMU was an apparent No. 2.


The loss in Fargo was James Madison’s final recreation as an FCS program. The Dukes are beginning their FBS life as one among 4 new Solar Belt members this fall. Whereas NDSU stays in FCS with what seems to be an more and more bored fanbase, JMU is signing up for what could be a run of .500 seasons as they construct depth and try to compete within the Solar Belt East, possibly the hardest division within the FBS’ Group of 5 conferences. And their followers could not be extra excited.

Changing into your personal boss at age 50

By any measure, Curt Cignetti’s football-coaching profession was going relatively effectively. Prolonged stints as quarterbacks coach at Pitt (1993-99) and NC State (2000-06) had given him the clout to draw Nick Saban’s consideration, and in 2007 he turned a part of Saban’s first teaching workers at Alabama. He served as each receivers coach and recruiting coordinator, serving to to construct the recruiting equipment that has develop into so vital to Saban’s unimaginable tenure in Tuscaloosa. Alabama received the nationwide title in 2009, and he oversaw each the recruitment and growth of stars like Julio Jones.

In 2011, after 4 spectacular years at Bama, Cignetti took a leap that appears no much less jarring now than it did then: He moved again to western Pennsylvania to take over the Indiana University of Pennsylvania soccer program.

To make sure, IUP is a strong Division II program. Below Cignetti’s father Frank, the Crimson Hawks reached the Division II playoffs 13 instances between 1987 and 2002 and twice reached the championship recreation, shedding as soon as to North Alabama and as soon as to these dastardly NDSU Bison.

Nonetheless, Cignetti had left a soft and comfy gig for the bus rides and cramped soccer places of work of Division II. Why?

“I used to be hitting the large 5-0, and I used to be uninterested in being an assistant coach,” the now-JMU coach stated. “I discovered quite a bit from lots of people — however particularly Alabama and from my dad, clearly — and I used to be simply able to be a head coach.

“It was a giant danger — it was an unconventional danger. There have been many mornings early on after I wakened and thought I used to be nuts for doing what I did. That is most likely a transfer not too many individuals have ever made on this career. However it labored out.”

After a strong first season in cost, Cignetti formally bought IUP rolling once more. The Hawks went 12-2 in his second season, profitable the Pennsylvania State Athletic Convention title and a pair of playoff video games — they received not less than 9 video games in three of the subsequent 4 years as effectively. That earned him a soar up the ladder to FCS’ Elon. The Phoenix had received a complete of 11 video games from 2012 to 2016, however he instantly turned this system round, profitable 14 video games and snaring back-to-back playoff bids in 2017-18.

In 2018, Elon scored a 27-24 upset of JMU, this system’s solely win over the mighty Dukes in 10 tries. A few months later, JMU employed Cignetti to switch the outgoing Mike Houston. He did not want an adjustment interval there, both: JMU has gone 33-5 in Cignetti’s three seasons in cost, and the 5 losses — which embody two to NDSU and one to FBS’ West Virginia — got here by a complete of 25 factors. Each Cignetti and JMU had been prepared for a brand new problem, and the chance introduced itself at an ideal time.

After they knew

Jeff Bourne introduced his personal FBS expertise to the desk, too. Earlier than taking on as JMU’s athletic director in 1999, Bourne served in quite a lot of roles inside the Virginia Tech athletic division in the course of the Hokies’ soccer rise underneath Frank Beamer, then spent two years as Georgia Tech‘s senior affiliate athletic director, a tenure that coincided with the Yellow Jackets’ top-10 end in 1998. He knew there can be a possibility for JMU to make the FBS soar sooner or later.

“The transfer is one thing we had at all times ready for,” he stated. “It strategically felt like there can be a time limit when a possibility would come alongside that made good sense to the college. And we had constructed our infrastructure to some extent the place we felt like, as soon as we did make the transfer, we might be aggressive. We had modeled our infrastructure off of lots of Energy 5 establishments with regard to scholar assist facilities. We only in the near past completed the development of the Atlantic Union Financial institution Middle [the home of their basketball programs], and it features a apply facility and full assist operations for (the groups).”

When Oklahoma and Texas introduced they might quickly transfer to the Southeastern Convention final summer season, it created a fierce domino impact. The Massive 12 responded by plucking three faculties away from the American Athletic Convention, which in flip took six from Convention USA. In C-USA’s second of vulnerability, the Solar Belt — which had itself misplaced quite a lot of faculties to C-USA over the past main spherical of convention realignment — pounced. It will definitely added Old Dominion, Marshall and Southern Miss from the C-USA ranks, which made it an awfully interesting touchdown spot for JMU as effectively.

“We had been watching what the fallout had been with Texas and Oklahoma,” Bourne stated, “and we had anticipated that it was gonna take some kind of great occasion to create alternative at a stage the place it could be useful for JMU to discover choices. Up till this previous 12 months, it did not appear very possible as a result of there wasn’t actually an excellent touchdown spot for us.

“This chance with the Solar Belt was fortuitous. We felt we had been ready and the timing was good. And the establishments they needed to align with made it enticing for us.”

Was there any hesitation? Not so far as Cignetti was involved.

“I feel it was all a slam dunk,” he stated. “We felt like we had outgrown the [Colonial Athletic Association] slightly bit and had been able to make that FBS transfer, and never solely in soccer. There are lots of championship packages right here. We felt like we had an amazing model as an athletic division and a soccer program, and different sports activities and different individuals felt that manner too.”

JMU’s transfer up did not come as a shock to these round school soccer.

“In some ways, JMU’s whole athletic division and establishment share extra in frequent with many different FBS faculties,” stated Matt Brown, writer of the Further Factors e-newsletter and contributor to D1.ticker, a publication primarily based on the trade of school athletics. “You look underneath the hood, and also you say, yeah, that could be a peer to App State in some ways. That transition is simpler. That is not at all times the case for a college at an FCS establishment that occurs to be actually good at soccer.”

“I really feel extra comfortable each single day with this transition,” Cignetti stated, “not like greater than 12 years in the past, the place I actually questioned myself early on.”

Readiness and recruiting

Cignetti references his personal FBS expertise as a motive to hope the Dukes will make a secure and aggressive soar, however a latest (and momentary) NCAA rule change would possibly assist. Sometimes, FCS packages play with solely 63 scholarship gamers, and it takes time to construct depth and transfer towards the 85-scholarship restrict that FBS gives. However “due to COVID and all people getting an additional 12 months [of eligibility],” Cignetti stated, “we truly performed final 12 months at about 74 scholarships. Now a lot of the Group of 5 faculties, due to what is going on on within the [transfer] portal, are having a tough time getting 85,” however over the summer season they had been hovering round 80.

JMU bought a definitive style of how the switch portal can work within the FBS ranks when stars like 1,200-yard receiver Antwane Wells Jr. (South Carolina) and 116-tackle linebacker Diamonte Tucker-Dorsey (Texas) left for power-conference packages this offseason. Whereas that is a praise of kinds, Cignetti is not thrilled — “Yeah, we’re not getting any trophy for that,” he grumbled.

However he additionally made some portal additions of his personal. JMU introduced in veteran quarterback Todd Centeio (Colorado State), a high-level FCS receiver switch (Monmouth‘s Terrance Greene Jr.), a few senior defensive linemen and quite a lot of youthful gamers from FBS faculties.

“The opposite distinction is, now you are going to play FBS faculties week in, week out,” Cignetti stated. “We have at all times been extremely aggressive — we received the final two instances we performed Virginia and Virginia Tech, we performed East Carolina in my first recreation right here and beat ’em, and we took West Virginia all the way down to the final play [in 2019]. However then we might have a couple of FCS video games. That is the place depth turns into vital. And the usual of significance — you may’t play your C+ recreation now and get the [win]. You have gotta play your A recreation each week.”

Regardless, Cignetti has motive to really feel higher about his roster scenario than most FCS coaches do on the verge of the soar. That is one field checked. The following field: amenities.

“We’re stretched this primary season — we’re stretching so far as we presumably can — however I feel some extra adjustments to our soccer places of work and complicated will occur over the subsequent two or three years,” Bourne stated. “And we’re not doing this in isolation: We’ve 17 packages on the market that we’re having to verify they’ve the assets they want.

“One of many worst issues I feel I’ve seen occur is that packages make a change, after which they get two or three years in and so they cannot fund what they’ve began. That is not how we’ll function.”

Cignetti is aware of all these adjustments do not come in a single day.

“The largest factor, actually, is simply … a transfer like this prices cash!” he stated. “Coaches are impatient as a result of they’re paid to win, so that you need the whole lot proper now. You desire a recruiting division proper now, and there is another stuff you need proper now, however these take time. These take a pair years earlier than you actually have your group in place and the place you’ve got the whole lot that everyone else has within the convention.”

The passion hole and the way forward for FCS

Even Nick Saban has needed to deal with bored fans. School soccer’s best coach has on a number of events tried to cope with the problem of Alabama followers leaving simple wins early. It’s the most school soccer first-world drawback possible, and a model of this appears to be afflicting NDSU as effectively. The Fargo Dome nonetheless hosted a few of FCS’ largest crowds in 2021, however it’s tough to not discover a pattern: In 2018, NDSU averaged 18,106 followers at every residence recreation. In 2019, it was 17,440, down 4%. In 2021, it was 15,101, down one other 13%.

“There’s one thing to that that no person will say on document,” Brown stated. “You used to not have the ability to get a ticket. You will get a ticket now.”

JMU, in the meantime, averaged 19,631 final season and is on the verge of setting a program document for season ticket gross sales this summer season. And the house slate does not even embody Previous Dominion or Appalachian State but.

The powers-that-be — to the extent that there are powers-that-be in school soccer — are discussing major structural changes to the top of the sport’s pyramid, and nobody actually is aware of how issues will take form. Highly effective figures have been left to gossip and guess. Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney desires a “full blowup” and a top division of 40-50 teams. Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith suggests one thing with a much bigger umbrella, focusing on the programs that can offer 85 scholarships. With fairly a couple of instances difficult the essential tenets of amateurism inside school athletics, the court docket system can have a big say on how issues come collectively as effectively.

No matter occurs, the results will trickle down to each stage of the game. And for Bourne, that made it much more vital to pounce on the chance to align with robust, regional, mid-major packages.

“I feel the way forward for how [college football is] aligned and what we’re in a position to do on the convention stage is gonna be dictated by assets,” he stated. “These assets could also be centered in two or three conferences across the nation. It might restrict the assets which might be out there some other place. However our aim will likely be to navigate and work inside the Solar Belt and be aggressive there.”

In the long run, easy geography has maybe put JMU in a greater place than its FCS superior up north.

“I feel one of many points that it’s important to take a look at is, what does the geographic footprint appear like for competitors?” Bourne added. “What does it take to get there, travel-wise? We felt just like the Solar Belt was an amazing accomplice. For those who’re speaking to [athletic director Matt Larsen] out at North Dakota State, what does an FBS league appear like for him? That is one of many benefits of being within the east, is that we’re near establishments and nearer to competitors, which makes it extra possible for us to think about some choices.”

For NDSU, probably the most geographically wise FBS convention can be both the MAC or the Mountain West. The previous stretches primarily by means of Ohio and Michigan, and the closest faculty, Northern Illinois, is 600 miles away. The latter stretches all through the Mountain and Pacific time zones (and Hawaii), and the closest faculty, Wyoming, is 800 miles away. Convention USA would probably take the varsity in a heartbeat, however the geography is not any higher there, and it has some apparent stability points in the meanwhile.

“That is probably the most profitable program, with the most effective infrastructure and some of the developed fan bases — sort of a run-on-autopilot soccer program,” Brown stated of NDSU. “Put them within the MAC tomorrow, and 63 scholarships apart, they’re making a bowl recreation. However in case you’re the AD, in case you’re one of many [major] boosters, it’s important to notice, ‘I should not take one thing simply to take it.’ You’ve got nice basketball, and also you’re superb in different sports activities. Do you wish to enhance your monetary [burden] and your journey and your lacking class, and this monetary dedication for one thing the place there’s simply so many uncertainties?”

NDSU has clearly chosen to face pat. JMU did the identical till an amazing scenario arose. However it will likely be attention-grabbing to see what occurs if the Bison proceed to win, and attendance continues to slip.

“This is not the identical FCS because it was a decade in the past,” Brown famous. “James Madison is a peer program and so they’re leaving. App State left. Marshall left [long ago]. FCS retains increasing with Division II groups like Merrimack, and a number of the different perennially robust packages within the Missouri Valley are going through some institutional challenges, like Youngstown State.

“I do not suppose it is irrational for a fan to [notice], ‘Everyone seems to be leaving, and the title itself is changing into much less significant, and the extent of funding amongst our friends is declining.”

That is not an issue for JMU anymore. The Dukes have now made a transfer that fairly a couple of different friends made by means of the years, buying and selling annual rivalry for a second-division nationwide title for a deal with enjoyable, regional rivalries, the chance to sometimes commerce blows with the game’s greatest powers and a much bigger checkbook. And irrespective of how issues play out from right here — whether or not the Dukes instantly win massive or pay their dues with .500 (or worse) information for some time — Bourne understands the course forward.

“For me, I’ve to maintain my headlights on, and we’re gonna drive in our personal lane,” he stated. “We’re gonna do what it takes to be aggressive with the Solar Belt faculties and work with that group to let it assist navigate our future.

“It is about constructing sustainable packages which have nice rivalries. That for me is the important thing, and I’ve at all times saved that in thoughts, whether or not we had been at FCS or FBS.”

Sustainability, rivalry and enjoyable soccer. The game might use as a lot of that as attainable proper now.

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