After two national championships and 17 playoff appearances, James Madison is expected to leave the Colonial Athletic Association and the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) for the Sun Belt Conference of the Football Bowl Subdivision.
JMU currently sits at #3 in the FCS national poll with a 7-1 record coming off of a convincing win over Elon. The Dukes' only loss came at home against Villanova in October, 28-27.
In the past few months the FBS has seen big shifts in conference realignment, beginning with the move of Texas and Oklahoma to the Southeastern Conference (SEC) from the Big 12. This set off a chain reaction, as the Big 12 sought to replace Oklahoma and Texas with several schools from Group of Five conferences, resulting in a few conferences looking into having JMU make the jump up in division.
The Board of Visitors at James Madison held a special meeting on Friday to discuss the matter, and after a unanimous vote, they passed approval for a transition from FCS to FBS.
“The fact that we’re able to take this action is a reflection of the strong reputation that James Madison University has built, and the strength of our athletics program,” Board of Voters rector Lara Major said during the meeting. “It’s been strategically built over the years, so I very much appreciate the hard work on behalf of the university.”
The next step in the process is a presentation to the Virginia General Assembly and their approval. The Commonwealth of Virginia requires all public institutions to receive approval from the Assembly when changing divisions in sports, subdivisions included. The presentation will mainly focus on how the university will meet the financial requirements and needs of the FBS, but they are expected to move with ease as the committee meets this coming Friday.
Currently, the Dukes cannot offer more than 63 full scholarships, but the move to the FBS would mean 85 full scholarships. Upon leaving JMU is required to pay a $1 million buyout, plus an additional $250,000 to leave CAA football, but the media deals from joining the Sun Belt will make up for the losses.
No word has been released whether the move will be immediate or in a few years. Most teams that choose to move out of their conferences wait in order to prepare for the move, but it is speculated that it could be immediate.
As for the Wildcats, having JMU leave the conference allows greater opportunity for wins down the line, as prior to this season the ‘Cats lost five straight to the Dukes. However, not all can be positive, as ‘Nova loses a fierce CAA rival and great opponent to help elevate the program into the FCS playoffs.
While the CAA is often respected as one of the best conferences in the FCS, talks have already begun about replacements.
“You’re seeing every conference in the country assessing itself as it relates to membership-related matters,” CAA Commissioner Joe D’Antonio said last week. “There’s a myriad of factors that could play into making those decisions, but ultimately in the end we’re going to make the best decisions that are going to have the most effective impact on our conference being not only sustainable but competitive as we move into the future.”
Possible additions to the conference include Monmouth, Howard and Hampton, who all already play in the FCS, but also Fairfield and UNC Greensboro. With the addition of more than just one team, the CAA is looking to create a north and south division format that most conferences have in order to reduce travel costs.
Conference realignment still seems to be a developing issue that will take place over the next four years as Oklahoma and Texas make their move in 2025, but the FCS remains questionable, as defending FCS champion and current first ranked Sam Houston is rumored to be making the jump as well.
Who knows, maybe ‘Nova will get the call one day, but a few more championships and consistent seasons will be needed. However, fans should not get their hopes up, as the ‘Cats denied the opportunity to be in a hypothetical FBS Big East conference back in the 1990s. The future is blurry, but opportunity is surely knocking.