North Dakota State winning the last two FCS national titles and a record seven FCS in the last eight seasons surely means the Bison are the team to beat again in 2019.
Not so fast, Mr. Corso. James Madison might have a say in the matter.
The CAA Football power is the only program to win a national title during NDSU’s dynasty — in 2016, with a national runner-up finish a year later — and next season, they’ll return a more experienced team. The Dukes are expected to bring back nine starters on offense, 10 on defense and all the key specialists. Conversely, North Dakota State has only eight starters returning.
Both teams have new coaches — former Elon head coach Curt Cignetti at James Madison with Matt Entz promoted from defensive coordinator at NDSU. Ironically, both won national titles the last time they underwent a coaching change — NDSU with Chris Klieman in 2014 and JMU with Mike Houston two years later.
"I respect and understand the tradition of James Madison football and the great things that have gone on here in its growth and development,” Cignetti, 57, said. “We're going to have high goals and expectations and a blueprint to become the best we can be. There will be no self-imposed limitations on what we can accomplish.”
January in Frisco, Texas, is a long way off, but are five reasons James Madison has a chance to get back to the FCS championship game one year after what was considered a disappointing 9-4 season:
Cignetti a strong hire
Curt Cignetti comes from a football family, with his father, Frank Cignetti, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame. Curt also has learned under Nick Saban at Alabama (including in the 2009 national championship season), Johnny Majors at Pittsburgh and Chuck Amato at North Carolina State.
Considered an excellent recruiter, Cignetti had quick success in the CAA at Elon. The Phoenix were 4-20 in their first three CAA seasons prior to Cignetti’s arrival and went 10-5 in the conference under him the last two years, including a win at James Madison this past October.
Similar playing style
Mike Houston’s teams at James Madison resembled North Dakota State. Cignetti’s teams at Elon resembled James Madison.
Cignetti seeks to win games in the trenches, his offense controlling game clock with the run and the defense being aggressive and physical. Elon was No. 2 in the CAA in rushing last season — ahead of JMU — and his new team returns all five starters on the offensive line. The Phoenix didn’t fare as well with rush defense, but that will improve with the higher talent in Harrisonburg, Virginia, including former FBS players up front in the 4-3.
Experience, experience, experience
James Madison’s lineup is so veteran-laden that one of its few losses, consensus All-America cornerback Jimmy Moreland, already has a replacement in Rashad Robinson, who was the 2018 CAA preseason defensive player of the year, but missed the season with a foot injury.
The offense will get a boost if returning quarterback Ben DiNucci is more consistent. He gets back a strong receivers unit in Riley Stapleton, Kyndel Dean and Jake Brown.
Moreland is the only starter lost on defense. The Dukes will get a fifth year out of linebacker Dimitri Holloway, their tackles leader last season, because of medical hardship in 2017.
Few FCS teams have as much back on special teams.
Placekicker Ethan Ratke and punter Harry O’Kelly enter their third season as starters and are accustomed to kicking in big games. Long snapper Kyle Davis didn’t have a bad snap last season.
All-America punt returner D'Angelo Amos averaged 22 yards per return with three going for touchdowns. Kick returner Jawon Hamilton, who also went the distance on a return, is back as well.
On the outside, the Dukes see the door left ajar in the FCS because North Dakota State lost its largest senior class.
But the Dukes are motivated more internally. They didn’t win the CAA title last season — Maine did — and getting knocked out in the second round of the playoffs is hardly acceptable to them anymore following the 2016 and ’17 seasons.
With a loaded roster, they expect to be right in the 2019 national title mix.
— 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.
(Photo courtesy of JMU Athletics)