Villanova lost five times last season, three of them were by three points or fewer, whule two were by 10 points. One of those two losses was against FBS Boston College. The other? James Madison. While the Wildcats' roster looks very similar to last season, the Wildcats look on the field like they are a much different team, and they're hoping for a much different result, taking on a re-tooled James Madison at home.
To help us refresh our memories about JMU, we had Robb Abbot of JMUSportsBlog.com join us to answer some questions about the Dukes.
(1) The Mickey Matthews era seemed like a good one for JMU from the outside; the Dukes won a lot of games and built some impressive facilities. How is the post-Mickey feeling among fans in Harrisonburg?
JMU football owes a lot to Mickey. As you mentioned, the Dukes won a lot of games, not to mention a National Championship. With those wins, came increased interest which resulted in a ton of resources poured into the program. Most fans, including us, definitely thought it was time for Mickey to go and for the program to turn the page. The program had plateaued and despite its tremendous advantages over its rivals ($, facilities, fan support, etc), it wasn't separating itself from the pack. In fact, fans were seeing rival programs do a whole lot more with less. Combine that with Mickey's attitude toward the press and seeming reluctance to hold himself accountable for some of the hiccups, and it was clear the program needed a restart.
Coach Withers and his new staff were welcomed with open arms and most fans enthusiastically bought was he was selling initially. He talked a really big game about bringing "the juice" as he calls it, to JMU football. Then the team got its doors blown off by Maryland and has let two non-conference FCS opponents march up and down the field almost at will. Some of the less patient fans are starting to be a bit skeptical of Withers and his promised changes. Most of the more reasonable fans have simply adjusted their expectations slightly. Those folks, and we'll include ourselves in this batch, seem to think that the program will find success under Withers, but it probably won't be immediate and there might be some speed bumps along the way this season.
And then there is the lingering "should we stay or should we go" debate about JMU and the FBS. Certain people are very concerned/frustrated/angry about the fact that JMU hasn't jumped up a level and have lost virtually all their faith in the administration. Others are a little more patient and believe that positioning the school for a move and actually finding a league willing to extend an invitation can be mutually exclusive in some ways. Consider Todd among the former and Rob among the latter (then see if you can pick out the questions Todd answered below). Regardless of which side folks come down on, it's definitely on a lot of fans' minds.
(2) I still see the "we beat Virginia Tech" t-shirts floating around in the DC area. Was that the biggest win in program history? What would it take to surpass that moment?
Yes. We'd love to say that the National Championship in 2004 was bigger, but it wasn't. And to a lot of alums, it's probably not even remotely close. JMU and VT are obviously not rivals in any sense and we don't think there is any animosity between the schools or their respective fanbases. It's quite the opposite actually, with so many JMU students and alums having close friends and family members who go to or graduated from VT. Still, Hokie fans tend to have a rather inflated view of where their program sits in the college football pecking order, not to mention an unseemly habit of putting about 15 VT related stickers and decals on every vehicle they buy, and a simple "21-16" (the score JMU won by) is enough to end any Hokie trash talk at any time. So that's nice.
JMU could surpass the win over VT in one of two ways. First, the Dukes could beat another FBS power program as an FCS school. The second would be for JMU to make the jump to the FBS, taking with it the uniqueness of an FCS school upsetting a power conference program. And we're not talking about JMU joining a power conference or become VT's peer. It's just that even if JMU became a part of a lower tier FBS league (MAC, Sunbelt, etc), eventually fans might forget exactly how big of an upset the win over the Hokies was. That might be better described as fading away rather than surpassing though.
(3) How many years did it take off your lives when Lehigh was marching into field goal range with a chance to tie it up late?
It was definitely nerve-wracking, but not as bad as you might imagine. If JMU had played lights out for the entire game and put itself in a position to lose with a late drive, it would have been worse. The Dukes had actually started off pretty badly and didn't really look like they were going to win until well into the second half. So we were nervous, and definitely would have been angry if Lehigh won, but at a certain level we probably could have accepted it as a just result. Frankly, JMU sort of stole that game. Plus, it was clear by that point that field goal range was a relative term and there wasn't a spot on the field where Lehigh would have a gimme kick. Harsh, but true.
(4) Is Vad Lee one of the CAA's most underrated signal-callers? If JMU wins on Saturday, how will Lee lead their offense to victory?
We're really not sure how to rate Lee. He's been very shaky through three weeks, though he looked healthier and moved better this past week. It's weird, but after two years running triple option at Georgia Tech, he really is just learning the offense. So far, he doesn't seem to have the arm of the now-departed Michael Birdsong, but he seems to be an unquestioned leader already within the squad, at least from what we can tell. For the Dukes to win, he needs to a) make good decisions on read option plays, b) continue his discovery of Daniel Brown who is a unique weapon at the FCS level, and c) not take chances with the football - last week against St. Francis he made some very ill-advised throws but St. F's wasn't capable of making the Dukes pay where Nova will be.
(5) How will JMU's defense try to counteract John Robertson and the Wildcats? Who are the players to watch out for?
A HUGE key to this game will be the health of Dukes LB Gage Steele. Kid's a beast, but sat out with an injury the first two weeks, before seeing limited action last week. JMU's really struggled against the run so far (massive understatement), but missing your best tackler doesn't help so it's important he's involved. S Dean Marlowe is probably the Dukes best overall player, but he's been forced to help so much in the run game that he hasn't been able to make big plays. A new name to keep an eye out for is freshman CB Jimmy Moreland. If Nova's successful running the ball he may not figure into the game too much, but he's burst onto the scene with the type of game-changing plays that immediately signal flat-out star potential. He had an INT to set up JMU's only TD against Maryland, blocked the game-tying FG attempt by Lehigh, and then had both a pick-six and a fumble recovery against St. F's.
(6) What is your honest expectation for how JMU will finish this season? Are you optimistic about Coach Withers' ability to get JMU to the top of the mountain?
We'll take this in two parts cause they're very different questions. For this season, I think we're still feeling something around the 8-4 mark. This game is easily the toughest on the schedule and we're not overly optimistic, but we miss UNH (good) and URI (bad). Towson and Maine appear to have come back to the pack though so things look wide open after Nova and UNH. 8-4 could end up anywhere from 3rd to 7th or 8th in this year's CAA so JMU's postseason chances may, as always, depend on where those losses come. This team appears to have had a bit of a talent infusion this year, but learning new systems on both sides of the ball and playing so many freshmen (15 so far) are gonna hurt at times.
As for the second part, we remain bullish on Coach Withers. Of course their are hiccups and it may take another year, but it was high time for a change in Harrisonburg. The problem is the "mountaintop" appears to be shifting. Withers' early recruiting victories appear to have taken a page from the Andy Talley playbook of selling a move to FBS and it will be interesting to see what happens now that our administration has pretty much pulled the rug out from under pretty much everyone on that idea. We definitely think Withers has the know-how, the facilities, and the program support to get back to a more consistent playoff level in FCS, but even that is tough when a program continues living in purgatory thanks to a waffling, weak administration.