Analyzing JMU's AAC Rumor

Image Courtesy of JMU Athletics

Image Courtesy of JMU Athletics

Preston Adams, FCS Fans Nation Contributor

Editors note: This article was written before sources reported that the American Athletic Conference may not replace UCONN at all, instead opting to remain an 11 team conference.

JMU is a great candidate for joining the AAC following the news that UCONN is set to join the Big East. But, should they be so eager to do so? Personally, as a fan I am torn, because I think the university has been making steps towards a move like this for a few years, and I see the upside of joining a bigger conference. On the other hand, purely from a football perspective, do we really want to go from being a big fish in a smaller pond to a small fish in a gigantic pond? I am going to try and break down the pros and cons for each side, both staying in FCS, and going to FBS, given the invite. This will be looking at the move not just for football, but for other sports as well. 

Before I do though, I’d like to address something that of course will come up. There will be SOME that say, “oh but JMU hasn’t won anything why are they going to make the jump?” While I understand that this is extremely hyperbolic and undoubtedly short sighted, it is a point that I feel one can bring up with concern. However, even in our own state, JMU has seen programs make football moves to FBS after little to no national championship aspirations or success at the FCS level. ODU made the jump from the CAA to C-USA in an incredibly short time period. Had they stayed a couple more years, they were shaping up to be a potential FCS powerhouse in the talent rich Virginia Beach area and perennial playoff team. Liberty bought their way into being an FBS independent after having what can honestly be said was an underwhelming experience at the FCS level. The verdict is still out on Liberty since their jump is still technically in transition, though I question their ability to be a powerhouse independent like a BYU or Notre Dame, but for the football program of ODU, I think it is safe to say that being in C-USA hasn’t really helped raise the football profile for the school. But again, these are teams with little to no football success at the FCS level on a large scale. If JMU decided to move, they would be doing so with a football resume that resembled that more of an Appalachian State. JMU is a program with national championships and sustained winning tradition. Plus, they’ve already had an invite, but declined to move to the Sun Belt, where the closest opponent to them would have been App. State. My point is, JMU isn’t just ANY school that would be making the jump to an FBS conference, and it has other sports programs that would compete in, and even win in some power 5 sports leagues.


Pros to staying:


The CAA is talent rich and top conference in the FCS. 

While some folks like to complain about officiating and more legitimate choices for coverage, there’s no doubt that top to bottom, the CAA provides top level competition for JMU in the realm of football at the FCS level. Furthermore, with the recent success of JMU nationally, other CAA schools are recommitting to their football programs in big ways. A deep playoff run by Maine, the continued-up tick of Stony Brook and Elon, and with perennial powers Delaware and William & Mary recommitting with better coaches and upgraded facilities, the conference looks to remain a staple of the Big 3 (MVFC, Big Sky, CAA) conferences of FCS.


JMU is a top tier FCS program. 

When it comes to facilities, fan engagement, winning tradition, and overall gameday experience, there are few schools that can match JMU overall. And, when JMU complete the permanent indoor facility and rest of the football stadium, no other program at the FCS level will come close with facilities, except maybe Montana. JMU has also had plenty of on field success over the last few years and shows no signs of slowing down. This shows in having strong recruiting classes, and fan interest. With Cignetti at the helm I don’t see any of these slowing down and look forward to seeing how JMU takes all of this to an even higher level.



Recruiting unicorn.


There is an appeal to some recruits when it comes to earning a championship on the field. JMU consistently beats out G5 programs on the recruiting field and even some smaller P5 schools. JMU is in a unique position to offer longer exposure with deep playoff runs for players who have NFL aspirations, while also being a relevant program. While we know scouts will find good players anywhere, you’re going to have a better chance of being seen and seen often at the FCS JMU school than even a Temple/ODU.


Our women’s sports dominate the CAA. 

JMU has women’s sports that are dominate not only in the conference, but statewide even among P5 schools. Furthermore, in sports like Women’s Lacrosse and Field Hockey, the Colonial also has ranked women’s programs as well, so it’s not like JMU is beating up on subpar competition in those examples. But, there’s more to this pro than meets the eye.



JMU still has good rivalries in the CAA. 

I am big on keeping up good rivalries in college sports. I think it’s one of the reasons the FBS has lost some steam over the last 10 years or so with all the conference realignment. JMU still has good in state rivalries with William & Mary and (dirty) Richmond, even if both schools have slightly fallen off. Furthermore, Delaware, an old CAA south rival is on the rise as well. Uprooting those rivalry games would sting for a lot of fans, especially if we moved into a conference where there was no geographic appeal in terms of another rival. 


The FCS has great programs and storylines outside of JMU for fans to follow. 


The Big Sky and MVFC are great conferences for JMU fans that are also generic football fans to follow. Of course, there are other programs such as Kennesaw State, Jacksonville State, SHSU, and others from non-power conferences that make for great storylines as well, but the point is overall, FCS has so much to offer. We can talk about everything from the history of HBCU and Ivy League school programs to the dominance of an NDSU and classic programs such as Montana, Youngstown, and Delaware. While there is plenty of this at the FBS level as well, there is something to be said about comparing your program to those on the same level as you. I think if more JMU fans leaned in on learning more about other FCS programs, they would appreciate the subdivision a little more.  


Cons to Staying:


Lack of casual fan interest.

I think overall JMU has a hardcore fan base that will support the Dukes and be all in no matter who they are playing. If we want to keep casual fan interest though, we need to keep winning at a high level, or find competition that is compelling. With Virginia schools outside of Norfolk State and the CAA rivals refusing to play us, getting compelling OOC games is difficult. We got lucky with the home and home with Chattanooga this year and next, and a great FBS match up with WVU. We know what it’s like to compete on a national level with top competition (and win) thanks most recently to our great women’s teams and Men’s Soccer. I know fans want the same for football too. 


Women’s sports being dragged down. 


At JMU we know our women’s sports programs are phenomenal, despite being in a marginal conference like the CAA. The Dukes are consistently ranked in Softball, Women’s Lacrosse, Field Hockey, and always on the cusp in women’s basketball/Volleyball. With a move into a conference like C-USA or the AAC, these programs would get even more attention. I make the argument that our softball program is top 15 in the country, and I believe in the right conference, can be top 10 easily. We could never make a move solely for our women’s sports programs, but our women have been deserving for a very long time. 


The feel of small-time football. 


While the CAA is a great football conference at the FCS level, one really can’t help but feel that it is somewhat small time, especially when visiting other CAA schools. JMU, Delaware (especially after renovations), and William & Mary have great football stadiums. Richmond’s is ok, but it’s tiny. The rest of the conference is well...yeah. The stadiums are nice, but compared to JMU’s there’s really no contest, which can be said for about 95% of FCS stadiums in that regard. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with going to Towson, Elon, or Villanova, but part of the college football experience is the excitement of going to a great away game for the experience and facilities. We don’t really get that here. 


Always feeling like a little brother to other VA football programs. 


While I think it’s nice being in a unique position being able to offer great athletes a legitimate shot at a national championship at a football school with a real brand, it’s almost impossible to escape the small feel of FCS compared to FBS. It’s no secret that no G5 schools will schedule JMU because they know they’ll likely lose, but they still like to talk down to the Dukes like they’re oh so much better. Obviously, we know we can’t compete with Power 5 conferences consistently, yet UVA and Tech still won’t schedule us for some reason. A move up to FBS would force those programs to schedule us, or at least come up with better excuses for not doing so. For now, though, w are where we are.


JMU lost a lot of rivals in the last conference realignment. 


So, we are happy to have (dirty) Richmond in football and W&M in all CAA sports as a rival, but overall JMU lost so many good rivalries when GMU, ODU, and VCU all bolted the CAA for better conferences. Of course, we can still play these schools on occasion in basketball and other sports, but it’s just not the same. I know for me basketball lost a lot of the shine it once had when the other Virginia schools left the conference. Plus, ODU also leaving with their football program ripped up a potential budding rivalry before it even started. 


Pros to moving up:


Potential rivalries in C-USA and the AAC look great. 


I’ll get the three obvious teams out of the way in Marshall, Charlotte and ODU from C-USA in terms of potential regional rivals. But as a conference I don’t like it as much as I like the AAC. JMU would be a great fit in the American East division, and the conference make up is a lot like that of the CAA on that side (with more travel to Florida of course). JMU also has a football history with schools like Navy, SMU, and ECU. I see transitioning into that conference being seamless, and we would immediately be competitive in a very good G5 conference.


Rejuvenated fan interest. 


I fully believe the opportunity to host G5 schools like Boise State, UCF, Temple, and others would bring a new kind of fan to the JMU football program. Plus, in state rivals would have no excuse not to schedule us anymore. Playing schools like ODU, UVA, and Virginia Tech in football would be great for recruiting, for game day experiences, and for fan interaction. It might take a while for a P5 school to come to Bridgeforth, but at least they can’t continue to duck us if we are in the same subdivision as they are.


Destination game day experiences. 


For a lot of fans, it’ll be wonderful to go to gamedays because the travel will be like a mini vacation. Apart from more of the traveling we would be doing to great P5 schools, going to cities like Orlando, Houston, Philadelphia, and Dallas are in it of themselves great reasons to get away for a weekend for a college football experience. What about Annapolis or Cincinnati? All of those are destinations in the American, and the football games themselves would be great too. 


Revenue. 


With the move, there would be better TV contracts, and as a result more revenue for all sports programs. The costs in scholarships and coaches’ salaries also go up, but if done right, the move does not have to be debilitating. With more enticing games in football and other sports, fan interest would potentially drive up prices ever so slightly, and eventually should lead to the completion of Bridgeforth Stadium. The completion of this stadium will likely be a part of the deal needed to be made for JMU to secure a spot in the AAC or C-USA.


Our women’s teams deserve better. 


We have 3 women’s programs that are consistently ranked nationally, (Softball, Lacrosse, Field Hockey), and a women’s basketball program that one can argue is certainly top 50 in the country, and often flirting with the top 25. While sports like FH and Lacrosse provide good competition for these ladies, the other sports tend to fall short. Outside of Hofstra, that was dreadful this year, CAA Softball really isn’t the greatest, and the Women’s Basketball team has been dominant over the last few years, especially when we lost the other Virginia schools to realignment. With a move to a conference like C-USA, and especially the AAC, our programs could go from Mid Major power houses to Mid Major juggernauts. Women’s Lacrosse recently won a National Championship, and Softball was the only unseeded team in the NCAA tournament to advance past the Regional phase, losing to eventual WCWS champion UCLA. What’s more, is our women’s programs are legitimately the best in Virginia, even better than UVA and Virginia Tech. These athletes have deserved to play on a bigger stage more consistently for a long time, and I believe that given the chance, we could see some even more nationally recognized programs in the right spot.


No more in state FBS schools avoiding JMU. 


While Tech and ODU fans love to punch down on The Twitter and other platforms when it comes to JMU Football specifically, their athletic departments seem to have no interest in playing the Dukes on the gridiron. A G5 program that JMU competes with and beats out recruits for not wanting to play is somewhat understandable. However, the power 5 programs in the state avoiding us while other power 5 programs in the surrounding area schedule us yearly is laughable. You’re really going to schedule William & Mary and Richmond on the regular, but not JMU? You’re going to go out of your way to schedule Rhode Island and Furman, but not JMU?? JMU is an hour and a half from Virginia Tech and 45 minutes from UVA. The fact that they haven’t squared off since 2010 and the 80’s respectively is borderline cowardly. A move to FBS would make these great in state rivalry games happening unavoidable. 


Cons to moving up:


There is a big difference between the AAC and the other 3 potential conferences. 


I think we all understand that JMU would only entertain an invitation from either the AAC or C-USA, but it is important to understand that other conferences might try. The MAC has no chance because I don’t see JMU having any interest in Tuesday night football to go along with possibly the worst football conference in the G5. While the Sun Belt has seen improvements over the years in football, especially since adding Appalachian State, it is still clearly a step below the AAC, and travel/geographical footprint of the conference are enough to make this a move JMU would not likely choose. C-USA has some great potential regional rivalries that I mentioned above, but the conference geographically is a mess. Moreover, it is not on the same level as the AAC on the field either. So, if we are being honest, the dream spot for JMU would be the AAC, the conference with the best TV contract by far, and the better/more storied programs on the field as well. If JMU slid in to the recently opened UCONN spot I think most fans would not complain. The problem is, would the AAC, which thinks of itself as a Power 6 conference instead of a G5, ever go for a school straight from the FCS, even one with an athletic program as successful as JMU’s, and the academics as well. Conventional wisdom says no, but JMU is also not your average FCS institution.


Conference realignment. 


While it can be a great opportunity for FCS schools to move up into FBS, the conferences they’ll be joining might not be as appealing as previously constructed. The ACC and SEC will be up for television contracts in a few years, and that will likely be the next time power 5 conferences look to expand. Tops of any power 5 conference wish list for expansion are likely to be UCF, Houston, and to a lesser extent, USF. That in it of itself would completely change the perception of the AAC, and who knows maybe those schools would decline invites, but let’s be honest, that’s not happening. A slight pro might be the G5 conferences consolidating geographically which would be great for schools planning on moving up, but this isn’t guaranteed either, especially with conferences looking to expand into tv markets more so than create convenient travel. All in all, conference realignment is a crap shoot, and what comes out the other side isn’t always as appealing as the original construction of the conference. 


The athletic budget is not what it seems. 


While yes, JMU is operating on an athletic budget that is right in the middle of the AAC schools and ranked in the top half of all FBS competition, the ways in which they generate money is completely different. JMU’s athletic budget relies heavily on student wages, while other G5 programs have television contracts and sponsorships that help supplement larger percentages. Some of the top power 5 schools have no student wages for their athletic departments at all. Also, if JMU were to move up to FBS in the state of Virginia, by law they would be required to adjust the way the athletic department collects revenue, aka, reduce student reliance heavily. While I believe we are already taking steps towards this, and TV revenue would make this transition a lot easier, it is still something that needs to be considered. And, I am all for reducing student wages in any way we can. 


No longer a big fish in a small pond. 

JMU occupies a unique space being a top program in the FCS when it comes to recruiting and the playing time/exposure it can offer. With the world we live in the phrase “if you can play, they will find you” is as true as it ever has been. Right now, JMU can offer 3 star and 2 star recruits along with FBS transfers an opportunity to immediately play potentially, while also gaining exposure with extended playoff runs. In fact, JMU recently landed a 3 star commitment that had multiple offers from power 5 programs and G5 programs as well. We will lose that special spot moving up to a G5 conference. While I fully believe in JMU and their ability to compete against other G5 programs for top recruits and being able to attract better players by playing in FBS competition, this will inevitably become more difficult. It’s one thing to offer top notch facilities for an FCS program while also offering immediate playing time, potential for longer exposure, and national championships. It is another ballgame when you’re competing with power 5 and G5 schools head on for those higher level recruits that are inevitably needed to compete week in and week out at the next level. Precollege rankings for high school athletes are not the be all end all, but overall conventional wisdom would say we are going to need more 3 and 4 star players if JMU hopes to make a real mark at the next level. JMU’s facilities are very nice, but we aren’t Texas A&M or Southern California. 


Say goodbye to football national championships. 


This seems to be the biggest sticking point with any FCS school hoping to move up to the next level. Do you want to participate in a real playoff format that the FCS provides, or do we want to do a one off in the We Be Burnin’ not Concernin’ Jamaica Bowl? (You laugh, but that could be a real bowl if Disney/ESPN have anything to say about it). As a G5 program you must be honest with yourself and realize that the power 5 and powers at be will never let a G5 program into their “true playoff” so long as they can find excuses to exclude. And trust me, they will always find a reason, no matter how big the playoff field gets. So that leaves JMU with the benefits of a bowl game such as payoff, and potential exposure depending on the opponent and when the game is played. I personally don’t care too strongly either way on this subject, but the football for the FCS playoffs will be a lot more competitive and better. If the G5 conferences would just realize they will never have a playoff spot and get together with ESPN and the NCAA to have their own, a lot more FCS programs and fans would likely find the jump more palatable. But that also means conceding that their football is a step below the power 5. I’ve already written a long article about this, so let me just stop there. 


Summary:

At the end of the day, I think this comes down to personal preferences when it comes to JMU making the jump. It is an inevitable move in my opinion, and there are obvious signs that the university and athletic department are gearing up for this move. When it does happen JMU fans, and honestly many FCS fans, will be sad to see JMU go. Along with a great on the field product, JMU has a passionate fan base that is always willing to engage in online banter, while handing you a beer in the tailgating parking lot. So, I am going to enjoy the JMU FCS run for as long as it keeps going. We have a great team going into 2019, and a new coaching staff that knows how to win. No win or championship is ever a given, so it’s important to live in the moment and soak up all the emotions that come with the sport we love. That way when JMU Football and the rest of our athletic department moves to a G5 conference, we’ll look back on our time in FCS with joy, and the great opportunities that come with a move up not only for our football program, but athletic department and university overall.