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McFeely: James Madison poised to jump to FBS

FCS power reportedly being considered by both Sun Belt Conference and Conference USA

Bridgeforth Stadium at James Madison University was expanded to seat about 25,000 people in 2011, giving it the feel of a higher-level stadium. Mike McFeely / The Forum
Bridgeforth Stadium at James Madison University was expanded to seat about 25,000 people in 2011, giving it the feel of a higher-level stadium. Mike McFeely / The Forum

FARGO — While some at North Dakota State would like to see the school's football program receive an invitation to join the Football Bowl Subdivision Mountain West Conference so it could leave the lower Football Championship Subdivision, the chances of it happening are slim and appear to be getting slimmer.

First, the obvious: The MWC indicated this week it is content to stand pat at 12 football teams and doesn't envision expanding soon. Although that might change depending on the ongoing nature of conference realignment.

Second, the should-be-obvious: Among the many challenges facing the Bison in a move up is that Fargo remains a long way from anywhere, a geographic island in the FBS world of collegiate sports that likely makes NDSU less attractive to the Mountain West. Geography is not going to change.
This means NDSU will likely not hear any encouraging news about leaving FCS anytime soon. The hope of joining FBS remains a moonshot, as I deemed it in December.

The same cannot be said for one of the Bison's chief rivals at the top of FCS.

James Madison, which beat NDSU en route to a national championship in 2016 and lost to the Bison twice in subsequent trips to Frisco, Texas, appears on the cusp of getting a coveted invitation to an FBS league.

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The Athletic first reported, and other national outlets confirmed, that JMU is being considered by both the Sun Belt Conference and Conference USA.

While even just a year or two ago those options might not have seemed all that attractive to the Harrisonburg, Va., school — it had its sights set on the then-more highly regarded American Athletic Conference — the massive changes that have rocked college football in the last four months likely have JMU considering a jump if it receives an invite from the Sun Belt or C-USA.

We don't need to get into the nitty-gritty of why C-USA might not be attractive or why the Sun Belt might be a better option now than it was a year ago. There are a million moving parts in conference realignment just this week. We can just say that it looks like it's crunch time for JMU and its opportunity to move up.

No announcements are imminent, even though JMU fans believed athletic director Jeff Bourne was going to reveal a bombshell at a basketball press conference Thursday. He didn't. Greg Madia, who covers the Dukes for the Harrisonburg newspaper, wrote on Twitter that according to sources he's talked with JMU is "still determining if it can make a jump to FBS work financially."

James Madison has a huge athletic budget relative to other mid-majors, so Madia followed with a tweet saying, "While JMU’s budget fits several FBS options, there’s need to improve private fundraising to support expense increases of FBS (travel, coach salaries, scholarships). TV money in G5 leagues don’t cover the difference."

But it sure seems that if James Madison wants to make the move up, which it has indicated it does in the right situation, we've reached the point where it'll have to make a decision.

The decision should be to go.

It's easy to say this sitting 1,400 miles to the west with no dog in the fight. It ain't my money and it ain't my future.

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But if the time is right for NDSU's football program to move up, and it is, the time is right for JMU to do the same.

JMU and its administration have similar frustrations with FCS that some at NDSU do. James Madison was, ahem, displeased with its conference (the Colonial Athletic Association) in the way it handled the COVID-postponed fall 2020 season and the subsequent spring 2021 season. The Dukes believe many schools in the CAA don't have the proper commitment to football. JMU sees the future (and the present, frankly) of FCS being controlled by the middle- and lower-echelon programs to the detriment of the top tier.

The fact FCS conference commissioners are even talking about expanding an already-too-big playoff field from 24 teams to 32 teams is a tell about where the subdivision is headed. Instead of having two or three sketchy playoff teams selected to fill out a 24-team bracket, let's have 10 sketchy teams and eliminate the bye week for seeded teams. Sheer stupidity.

We should find out soon if JMU is making the jump. If it happens, NDSU and those who support a move to FBS if the opportunity presented itself could only look east with jealousy.

The Dukes would make the transition to FBS seamlessly, leaving behind an FCS weakened by their departure.

Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, Coastal Carolina and now, maybe, James Madison. All gone from FCS in less than a decade.

Is there a way to up and move Fargo closer to the Mountain West?

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Related Topics: THE MCFEELY MESS
Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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