After 15 long months, the FCS playoffs have finally returned, and the previous runner-up, James Madison, is ready to mount another title quest.
The Dukes, ranked No. 1 in the latest Athlon Sports FCS Power Poll and the No. 3 overall seed in the bracket, will face off against SoCon champion VMI in what should make for a classic battle of offense versus defense. The Keydets are making their first-ever FCS playoff appearance while James Madison has played in three of the past four national championship games, winning it all in 2016.
Due to the pandemic-shortened spring season, JMU will not get a bye despite receiving a top-eight seed, but the path to their second title in five seasons remains the same: Win four straight games, at least two of which will come at home.
The winner of this game will take on the winner of Missouri Valley Football Conference co-champions Missouri State and North Dakota, making this one of the hardest quarters of the brackets. So, which of these Virginia schools, separated by less than an hour, will come out on top?
FCS Playoffs First Round: VMI at James Madison
Kickoff: Saturday, April 24 at 2 p.m. ET
Spread: James Madison -14
When VMI Has the Ball
The Keydets are averaging 30 points and more than 430 yards per game, aided by the subdivision's ninth-ranked passing attack (312.7 ypg). Quarterback Reece Udinski was the pilot to VMI's version of the Air Raid, but the offense has not slowed down even after he tore his ACL in late March.
Redshirt freshman Seth Morgan actually improved on Udinski's performance with a 76.0 percent completion rate and 171.7 passer efficiency rating. His yards per attempt (9.0) are up compared to Udinski (6.3), and he has a sparkling 8:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Having a pair of dangerous weapons in Jakob Herres and Michael Jackson doesn't hurt either.
But James Madison will provide Morgan and the rest of the Keydets' offense with their toughest test to date. The Dukes are second in FCS at just 9.8 points allowed per game and are nearly as stingy through the air, allowing 130.2 passing yards per game (6th nationally). Building an early lead and avoiding preseason All-American and CAA Co-Defensive Player of the Year Mike Greene (2.5 sacks, 8.0 TFLs) are musts for VMI.
When James Madison Has the Ball
The Dukes may not have VMI's potent aerial attack, but they are actually outscoring (33.8 ppg) and outgaining (434.6 ypg) the Keydets. James Madison's strength comes on the ground, where the program is fifth nationally at 236.0 rushing yards per game and averaging five yards per carry as a team (11th in FCS).
Percy Agyei-Obese is one of the brightest stars in the subdivision, but he's just one of several dangerous rushers on this team. Jawon Hamilton (52 att., 278 yds.) and Kaelon Black (25, 170) are both averaging more than five yards per rushing attempt and should be able to help wear down VMI behind an impressive offensive line.
VMI will have its work cut out for it, as the Keydets rank just 50th against the run at 148.7 yards per game allowed. They just gave up a season-high 271 rushing yards in their regular-season finale, although that was to the triple-option attack of The Citadel. VMI's path to victory will have to involve pressuring quarterback Cole Johnson, who has four touchdowns and four interceptions, making mistakes. The Keydets are ninth nationally at 3.43 sacks per game, led by Stone Snyder (8.0) and Connor Riddle (5.0).
James Madison is an undefeated heavyweight for a reason. The Dukes are one of the most complete teams in FCS. VMI's passing attack gives it the potential to pull off the upset, but a defense like JMU's is built to shut that down. The Keydets will likely have a hard time slowing down this offense, but a SoCon title in this strange spring season is a nice feather in the cap for VMI heading into the fall.
Prediction: James Madison 30, VMI 10
(Top photo courtesy of jmusports.com)