Could the James Madison Dukes go unbeaten in 2024?

Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl - James Madison v Air Force
Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl - James Madison v Air Force / Ron Jenkins/GettyImages

When discussing college football powerhouses, we typically look to names like Alabama, Oklahoma or Ohio State. But, while those are the biggest fish, giving them all the sugar results in the neglecting of smaller ones that have nonetheless earned their flowers. Perhaps the best example of these “smaller fish” is James Madison University.

The JMU Dukes have been one of college football’s most dominant squads over the last 20 years. So dominant, in fact, that its strength survived not only multiple coaching changes, but also a recent transition from the FCS to the far-superior FBS.

Speaking of which, the Dukes started their first season in the Sun Belt Conference 5-0 and their second 10-0. Pretty neat. The only downside is the fact that those two years didn’t conclude on as strong of notes, finishing 8-3 and 11-2. But hey, they at least confirm that the perfect run could very well be on the horizon, right? Well, face value may have something to say about that.

Since Week 13 of James Madison’s 2023 regular season, the Dukes have lost head coach Curt Cignetti to Indiana and the Armed Forces Bowl to Air Force.

With Cignetti being succeeded by Holy Cross’s Bob Chesney (a man with only six years of coaching experience at the Division I level) and the loss to the Falcons being JMU’s worst defeat in over 12 months, last season could not have ended on a sorrier note, and it makes the idea of the Dukes going unbeaten seem far less practical than initially thought. And you know what the worst part is? That’s so without even considering their upcoming slate.

The schedule seems to only add to JMU’s list of troubles

This fall, James Madison has a few opponents that stand out as what I would label “undeniable” threats, and the first of them earns the adjective for obvious reasons: North Carolina.

The Tar Heels will be just the third Power 4 bunch the Dukes have taken on in their short tenure as an FBS squad, and of the previous two, only one was a winning team. Said team was the 2022 Louisville Cardinals, who not only beat the Dukes, but ran them off the field in a 34-10 whoopin’.

Now they have the Heels in Chapel Hill—in other words, a team usually known for coaching and quarterback play superior to those of the Cards, in a universally jarring atmosphere. Not ideal.

Speaking of NC-based teams striking fear into James Madison’s heart, another foe on the schedule worth looking out for is Appalachian State. The Mountaineers have a case for actually being the most-frightening bunch of the ones being covered today, as they are not only a consistent team that will be hosting the Dukes this year, but also one that managed to beat them last year.

Therefore, them being tough cookies for JMU needs little explanation, and they would make for a crucial date on the calendar regardless of who preceded them. However, the guys that do are noteworthy themselves, and not just for being the ones that will loosen up the Dukes before a big rematch, but for having recently given them a heaping amount of grief of their own as well. Those guys are none other than the Old Dominion Monarchs.

Coming off of a 6-7 record, ODU is easily the weakest of the trio, but a poorly placed in-state opponent with the advantage of—you guessed it—playing at home can always cause problems, especially after said opponent did so last year under more forgiving circumstances.

In short, face value tells us James Madison is a team that, after once again cracking underneath the weight of perfection, is working with a new/inexperienced head coach and multiple Saturdays that are sounding alarm bells months before the season’s even begun—they don’t call it “face value” for nothing, though.

When taking a closer look at JMU’s 2024 situation, matters are actually far more manageable, and that’s not evident through factors yet to be revealed. Rather, it’s through the ones that already have been.

The limits of James Madison’s potential merely ride on perspective

Starting with the change at HC, I previously touched on Bob Chesney‘s limited experience in coaching at the D1 level. But, while that is undeniably true, it certainly doesn’t promise failure, and it’s not fair to Chesney to pretend otherwise. Don’t want to take my word for it? Understandable, but I highly recommend you at least take his predecessor’s.

Despite having seen greener pastures as a coordinator, Curt Cignetti’s head coaching résumé at the time of taking the JMU job was even worse than Chesney's is today. Instead of six years at Holy Cross like Chesney is coming in with, he had just two years at Elon (and he didn’t even reach as great of heights in that span), but that didn’t stop him from leading the previously 9-4 Dukes to the FCS title game in his first year.

So, if Cignetti could take the reins of the program and pave the way for success both that elite and that immediate, then I see no good reason to believe that Chesney is incapable of doing similar.

As for James Madison’s threatening opposition, I feel we should kick things off by addressing the elephant in the room: Did you ever wonder why I only mentioned three names that had a chance of beating the Dukes? It’s because the other nine likely don’t, so that’s one positive to note right off the bat.

From there, it’s important to remember that each piece of the aforementioned trio only has a chance; a deeper dive into their competitive edges show that they are in no way foregone conclusions—and yes, that includes North Carolina.

The Tar Heels, while undoubtedly formidable, have two question marks floating around them as they enter their duel with the Dukes, the first of which involves something I highlighted earlier as a strength of theirs: QB play.

UNC’s starting quarterback of the past two years is going to the NFL, and though that is something that would cause concern for any team, the caliber of player being lost this time around takes things to a whole new level, as Drake Maye was one of America’s top talents during his time in Chapel Hill.

Yet even with Maye, the Heels inexcusably struggled with smaller/weaker competition, including App State, Georgia State and Virginia. What do all of these squads have in common? James Madison has competed with—if not beaten—them in recent memory. I’m not a mathematician, but even I can add the loss of a star QB to a tendency to sleep on the little guy and get a very real chance of a Dukes win here.

When it comes to App State and ODU, we don’t have to rely so much on transitive speculation. Instead, we can simply look at how they’ve played each other before. Upon doing so, we see that JMU is a combined 3-1 against them since joining the Sun Belt Conference, and the only loss (the one to the Mountaineers last season) was in overtime. That paves a two-way street, where the odds of JMU winning appear, at the very least, just as heavy as those of JMU losing.

Way-too-early Top 25 projections for 2024. dark. Next. Way-too-early Top 25 projections for 2024

Now what does all of this tell us? That James Madison’s chances of going unbeaten ride on its new head coach seeing success in unfamiliar territory, and North Carolina collapsing against competition it shouldn’t, neither of which would be an even remotely new occurrence? Yeah, I’d keep my eye on the Dukes this year.