The James Madison Dukes are proving almost everyone wrong.
In theory, there is a sizable talent gulf between the Football Bowl Subdivision and Football Championship Subdivision of Division I college football. Every year, many FBS schools pay FCS schools good money to play, and these pay-to-play games are often viewed as easy wins for FBS teams.
However, James Madison made the transition from the FCS to the FBS ranks this season, joining the Sun Belt Conference as part of the widespread conference realignment that happened last fall, starting with the moves of Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC.
So far, the Dukes are showing that the gulf between the subdivisions is smaller than many realize.
As of Week 6, James Madison is undefeated (5-0), ranked in the AP Top 25 College Football Poll (No. 25) and is the second-highest ranked Group of Five team in the country, behind only No. 21 Cincinnati.
Per the Associated Press’ Ralph D. Russo, James Madison is the first team going back to 1978, when Division 1 split into I-A and I-AA, to be ranked in its first season transitioning to a higher subdivision.
Most recently, James Madison defeated Arkansas State 42-20, and the Dukes have been similarly dominant in most of their games.
Excluding a 32-28 win over Appalachian State — the same Appalachian State that upset Texas A&M — the Dukes have beaten their opponents (three FBS and one FCS) by an average of 35.5 points.
James Madison currently ranks No. 16 in the country in total offense, averaging 488.6 yards per game, and No. 2 in total defense, giving up just 227.4 yards per game.
The Dukes had been one of the best teams at the FCS level prior to making the jump to the FBS. James Madison had qualified for the FCS playoffs every year since 2014, won the the national championship in 2016 and finished as national runners-up in 2017 and 2019.
James Madison’s schedule is such that the Dukes have a chance at a special season, with only undefeated Coastal Carolina and a Power 5 program in Louisville standing as clear-cut challenges to a perfect record.
Per NCAA rules, however, James Madison is not eligible to play in a bowl game this season, meaning even if the Dukes end the year as the top-ranked Group of 5 team, they will be unable to play in a New Year’s Six bowl.
There have been plenty of intriguing stories this college football season, with Kansas experiencing a dramatic resurgence, and the return of Tennessee and USC to the top 10 to name a couple, but James Madison’s success is nearly unprecedented.