For the James Madison Dukes, the 2017 season was always about their final game because they were gunning for back-to-back FCS national titles.
JMU was unbeaten when it returned to Frisco, Texas, for the championship game, but it fell just short against their new long-distance rival North Dakota State, 17-13.
The 2018 season is different. While James Madison (14-1 last season) is favored to claim a fourth straight title in CAA Football, it will be passing through a number of yellow lights. The conference, with six teams in Athlon Sports FCS Preseason Top 25, might be the strongest in the nation, and third-year head coach Mike Houston’s Dukes have an especially tough road schedule.
Following is the regular-season schedule James Madison must navigate before it even thinks about the big picture.
James Madison Dukes 2018 Schedule
Bye: Week 8
Week 1 - Sept. 1 at NC State (Raleigh, N.C.)
NC State’s ninth-toughest schedule among FBS teams starts by the Wolfpack taking on an FCS heavyweight instead of a cupcake. James Madison has beaten two of its last three FBS opponents. The Wolfpack will remember Dukes tailback Marcus Marshall, the former two-time rushing leader at Georgia Tech.
Week 2 - Sept. 8 at Norfolk State (Norfolk, Va.)
The surprising aspect is JMU is playing at a MEAC school. It doesn’t matter. Last year, the Dukes put up 75 points and amassed 728 offensive yards (one shy of the school record) on Norfolk State.
Week 3 - Sept. 15 vs. Robert Morris (Harrisonburg, Va.)
This is a second straight game in which the Dukes can name the score. Robert Morris, a member of the Northeast Conference, has won only eight games over the last four seasons. In their Bridgeforth Stadium opener, the Dukes will be prepping for the first half of their CAA schedule, which comes before their bye week.
Week 4 - Sept. 22 vs. William & Mary (Harrisonburg, Va.)
William & Mary is coming off a 2-9 record and winless CAA campaign -- the worst in head coach Jimmye Laycock’s first 38 seasons leading the Tribe. Nevertheless, this is an intrastate rivalry, so the Dukes have to be focused as they enter the conference starter’s gate. They scored 33 points off turnovers in a 46-14 route last season.
Week 5 - Sept. 29 at Richmond (Richmond, Va.)
The trek to Virginia’s capital city is usually a two-hour trip. The Dukes are making it during the opening month of the season for the first time in 25 years. They don’t have to face former Spiders quarterback Kyle Lauletta, but redshirt junior Kevin Johnson made three playoff starts when the New York Giants’ 2018 fourth-round pick was sidelined in '16.
Week 6 - Oct. 6 vs. Elon (Harrisonburg, Va.)
The Dukes beat Elon on the final Saturday of the regular season to win an outright CAA title last season. Although the Phoenix should be stronger this year, the Dukes should have a 20-game home winning streak entering this showdown. They shut down quarterback Davis Cheek, the 2017 CAA offensive rookie of the year, in last year’s 31-3 win.
Week 7 - Oct. 13 at Villanova (Villanova, Pa.)
Don’t be fooled by Villanova’s 5-6 record last season, the Wildcats were injury-riddled and they still gave a credible performance at JMU. The ‘Cats have the talent to match the Dukes, so the visitors’ new quarterback -- either Cole Johnson or Pittsburgh transfer Ben DiNucci -- is going to have to be on top of his game.
Week 9 - Oct. 27 vs. Stony Brook (Harrisonburg, Va.)
After not facing James Madison in the regular season, CAA runner-up Stony Brook had the misfortune of going to Bridgeforth Stadium in the second round of last year’s playoffs. The Seawolves are back again, and this time, it’s on JMU’s Homecoming Day. It should be a defensive slugfest.
Week 10 - Nov. 3 at New Hampshire (Durham, N.H.)
UNH is ranked No. 3 in the preseason rankings, one spot behind James Madison. There might be a bigger gap between the two programs than the normal one-spot difference, but the Wildcats being at home closes a lot of it. They played a lot of juniors and sophomores on a team that reached the national quarterfinals last season.
Week 11 - Nov. 10 vs. Rhode Island (Harrisonburg, Va.)
The struggling Rams, who last had a winning season in 2001, must have loved the three-year break from playing James Madison from 2013-15 because the Dukes won by 77 points in '16 and 35 points last year. After the brutal stretch of CAA games prior to this one, the JMU coaches figure to utilize a lot of players.
Week 12 - Nov. 17 at Towson (Towson, Md.)
After a two-year break via the CAA schedule rotation, these two teams get back together. The Dukes hope they’ll be finishing off a fourth straight CAA title, but Towson may pose some challenge with the return of a conference-high 20 starters this season.
-- 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 courtesy of James Madison Athletics)