They didn’t lose to an FCS team, beat the other CAA Football powers on the road and stormed to a second national title under head coach Mike Houston, who was in just his first season in Harrisonburg, Va.
While some key seniors are gone, the Dukes have reloaded quite well for a chance at back-to-back titles.
Here are five reasons why they might be able to get the job done:
1. Power-running game
Last year’s team was built in a fashion that resembles North Dakota State, which won five straight FCS titles from 2011-15, and then the Dukes went out and beat the Bison in the playoffs. Their style includes a physical running game which last season averaged the most rushing yards (275) of teams not using the triple-option offense. Even though 1,800-yard running back Khalid Abdullah’s career is over, the Dukes return Cardon Johnson and Trai Sharpe, who combined for 1,321 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground, and added transfer Marcus Marshall, Georgia Tech’s leading rusher each of the past two seasons.
2. Bryan Schor
The Dukes’ dual-threat quarterback was tearing up CAA Football and still seemed underrated nationally because there were so many excellent signal-callers in the FCS. As Schor’s composure and leadership shined in the postseason, there was no overlooking him anymore. The most accurate passer (73 percent) in the FCS will have even greater command of the offense as a senior.
3. FBS transfers
In addition to Marshall, head coach Mike Houston was active with transfers from Power Five conferences, signing wide receiver David Eldridge (Virginia) for the offense and linebackers Gus Little (Maryland) and Landon Ward (Virginia) and defensive end Ron’Dell Carter (Rutgers) for the defense.
4. Home-field advantage
JMU ended North Dakota State’s long playoff streak inside the Fargodome in the national semifinals and yet the Dukes may not have to leave Harrisonburg in the playoffs until the championship game this season. They went 8-0 at Bridgeforth Stadium a year ago. A big regular season should give the defending champs one of the top two seeds and home-field advantage before the final in Frisco, Texas. Plus, they would return to the title game with the comfort of having experienced the game’s buildup before.
5. The coaching staff
Houston, who turned around The Citadel in two seasons, pushed all the right buttons in his first season with the Dukes and there should be even more continuity the second time around. He again has an experienced coaching staff with offensive coordinator Donnie Kilpatrick and defensive coordinator Bob Trott particularly holding terrific resumes. Their focus is strong.
— Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.
(Photos by James Madison University Athletics)