ESPN’s College GameDay is at an unusual site this week: Harrisonburg, Va., on the campus of James Madison University. The show is broadcasting in advance of the Dukes’ game against Villanova at 25,000-seat Zane Showker Field.
It’s not GameDay’s first time at JMU. The show also visited in 2015 before a game against Richmond, when the Dukes were ranked No. 1 in the FCS and the Spiders No. 11.
Why is GameDay at JMU and not at a big FBS game?
Just about every year, the show does at least one trip to a smaller school or a lower-level program. Last year, that was Kalamazoo, Mich., to see the undefeated Western Michigan Broncos. It’s also visited North Dakota State, Harvard, Air Force, and the deck of a boat. This year, the show broadcasted from Times Square in Manhattan.
This week is a good time to go somewhere unusual, because there aren’t a lot of exciting matchups on the FBS schedule. GameDay could’ve done Oklahoma-Texas or Auburn-LSU or Oregon-Stanford, but are any of those can’t-miss spectacles? No.
Why JMU specifically? What makes it special?
The Dukes are extremely good. They won the FCS national championship last year, which included beating five-time defending champion NDSU in a semifinal. This year, they’re 5-0 and ranked No. 1, one slot ahead of NDSU. Villanova is 4-2 and ranked No. 14, and this game is likely to be really good.
(It’s also worth noting GameDay producer Lee Fitting is a JMU alum, but this is one of the year’s biggest FCS games on a Saturday without a blockbuster FBS game anyway.)
But JMU’s not really that good, right? I mean, this is still FCS ball.
The Dukes trounced FBS East Carolina in Week 1, 34-14. They play a powerful brand of football, predicated on a ball-hawking defensive and downhill-running offense.
From an interview I did with their coach, Mike Houston, in January:
He recalled his team’s 5:15 a.m. spring practices, on frost-covered turf in Northern Virginia, and a specific conversation the Dukes had a half-year before the season even started.
“We talked about, you know, ‘We are going to build a team that has a strong, physical running game, that plays good defense, that plays great in the cold weather, and we’re gonna build a team that’s built to beat a team like North Dakota State,” Houston said. “Because teams that play great defense, run the ball, thrive in cold water, unified teams, those kind of teams are the ones that win playoff games and win late in the year.’ Our philosophy was, ‘We’re gonna build a team like that.’ By the time we made it to [the semifinal], we had already become that team.”
They’re 70th among all Division I teams in Sagarin rating, which suggests the caliber of an above-average FBS mid-major. They’ll lose to most Power 5 teams they face, but they’re better than a whole lot of top-division programs.
The last time GameDay visited JMU, what was it like?
It was fun! The opening:
The signs were also good. This one was topical at the time:
As was this one:
And this one was just mean:
And, of course, Lee Corso dressed up as James Madison himself:
Chances are good that JMU students will bring heat again on Saturday.