HARRISONBURG — The sports world is rife with disrespect, and as James Madison Coach Mike Houston gathered his team in a circle after practice Tuesday afternoon, he suspected he’d found another case. This weekend’s opponent, he told his team, believes the Dukes play in an inferior conference. This weekend’s opponent, he said, thinks what the Dukes accomplished last year was a fluke. The doubt, it burned — even in the middle of a pop-up snowstorm.
It felt almost rude to remember that James Madison has been the top-ranked FCS team all season, unanimously so for much of the fall. That the Dukes are the No. 1 seed in the FCS tournament, and a three-point favorite in Saturday’s home semifinal matchup with South Dakota State. That they’re the defending national champions and have yet to lose to an FCS opponent in Houston’s two seasons in Harrisonburg. (His only loss came against North Carolina in September of last season.) That they’re working on a 25-game winning streak — that’s the second-longest in FCS history, if you were counting, and you better not have been.
“We never talk about it,” Houston said moments later. “We never talk about the streak. We never talk about any of that.”
“Can’t talk about the streak,” defensive lineman Simeyon Robinson agreed. “We let each other know that that’s not what we’re looking to. We’re looking at the bigger picture.”
“Around here, we don’t talk about things. We let the play do the talking,” said quarterback Bryan Schor, the program’s career leader in passing yards, completions and touchdown passes.
Okay fine, but when you’ve been the consensus No. 1 team in the country since August, it must be hard to … what’s that?
“Sometimes we actually forget that we’re number one,” linebacker Kyre Hawkins noted.
Forget? Sometimes I forget to turn down the thermostat. Sometimes I forget to put away the Cheetos. I don’t know that I could forget if I were the world’s top-ranked sportswriter, though.
“Sometimes you just overlook it,” Hawkins insisted. “You’re just so focused on beating that team that week that you throw all the records out.”
I drove down I-81 trying to figure out how to describe this James Madison team that has yet to stumble since winning its second title last winter, a team that’s finished second in the country in FCS attendance two years in a row, that has the longest winning streak in all of Division I football, more than twice as long as Central Florida’s. The Dukes have the best scoring defense in FCS, allowing 10.3 points a game. They’ve won their six playoff games over the past two seasons by a combined margin of 232-95. They’ve hosted ESPN’s “College GameDay” twice in three seasons, as sure a mark of the big-time as you could invent. This feels bigger than a hot streak.
‘Bama of the Valley seemed like one possibility, and while there’s a whole lot of hyperbole in that suggestion, there might be some similarities in the approach. I kidded Houston this week about his insistence on blotting out the noise, maintaining tunnel vision, and ignoring the sort of grand story lines that attract people such as me.
“We do it. It’s not just coach-speak. That’s all we talk about,” he said. “I told ’em, ‘You can’t listen to your mom; you can’t listen to your girlfriend, because they don’t know what the crap they’re talking about. They love you; they think you’re the best thing in the world, but you can’t listen to them, because they don’t know what it takes to win.’ Everybody makes fun of Saban because he says that, but it’s the truth. It’s the truth.”
‘Bama of the Valley indeed. Houston and his staff spent this year nagging the Dukes about every college football upset they could think of — both from this year and the past. When Clemson lost at Syracuse as a three-touchdown favorite in October, that game was brought up in JMU team meetings. “Extensively,” Houston said. (The Dukes won their next four games by a combined margin of 135-25.)
“And so I think we just go so overboard in preaching that message, and to their credit, they believe what we tell ’em,” Houston said with a grin. “I could tell ’em the sky’s green, and they’d believe me.”
He has not, in fact, told his players that the sky is green. On the day I visited campus, the sky was actually dark, and snow poured down, and players shivered as they talked about their latest chance to prove these hypothetical doubters wrong. If the doubters existed, they must have been briefly thrilled during last weekend’s quarterfinals, when the host Dukes trailed Weber State by eight points with a bit more than three minutes on the clock. The best-case scenario figured to be a desperate touchdown drive and two-point conversion to force overtime. Instead, the Dukes tied the game in 66 seconds, held on defense, and then won it on a 46-yard field goal as time expired.
“I can’t say that we ever had doubts,” Hawkins said. “Because I feel like that’s how you end up with the season being over.”
Three days after that win, the school announced a new 10-year deal with Houston, who said he didn’t chase higher-profile (and salaried) jobs because “there’s a lot to being happy, and this is a place where you can be happy.” The deal also was meant to assure recruits the coach wouldn’t jump to an FBS school. Those three letters, of course, come up plenty whenever you discuss this program: whether the school should attempt to climb up a level, whether its long-term future involves competing for bowl berths rather than national titles.
“I definitely see this place becoming FBS one day,” said running back Marcus Marshall, a transfer from Georgia Tech and the son of Dukes legend Warren Marshall. “I mean, if you just look at the way we’re kind of trending, one day you’re going to have to.”
Scores of debates are woven into that question, including a pretty basic one: Is it more rewarding for a program and its fans to win a national championship than it would be to play in the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl, if you were lucky enough to get sent to Montgomery, Ala.? Would “College GameDay” still come to Harrisonburg if the Dukes were a middling FBS program? Would football-specific donations spike the way they did after last season?
“Winning a national championship is a very powerful thing. We talked last year: Are you better off going to a smaller bowl game or winning a national championship? Well, from the branding standpoint, it’s the national championship,” Athletic Director Jeff Bourne said. “You want to be an institution that has national acclaim, a very strong academic record, an institution that people will support. And right now, our fans are supporting us winning national championships in football. I would be a little reluctant to get into a situation where we went to an FBS league and we ended up competing in the middle of that league. I’m not sure that’s really healthy for us right now. We’d much prefer to make sure that whatever the future would hold for us — if we were to move or do something different from what we’re doing now — that we’re walking into an environment where we can compete at the very top.”
That’s a much broader discussion, though, one with little to do with Saturday’s task. The visiting Jackrabbits play in the mighty Missouri Valley Conference, along with FCS power North Dakota State, which easily won Friday’s other semifinal. North Dakota State had won five straight national titles before getting upended by the Dukes in the semifinal round a year ago; the Bison’s only loss this season came against South Dakota State, which has the third-highest scoring offense in FCS.
So maybe the Dukes and their 25 straight wins really are punching up at this Dakota domination. Maybe they are expected to fall back.
“We came out of kind of nowhere last year,” Houston said. “And so, to a degree, I think that we still have a lot to prove.”
It was snowing still, but I can’t promise that the sky didn’t show a hint of lime.
Read more from the Post: