HARRISONBURG — It’s obvious what James Madison’s football team must do to avoid missing the Division I-AA playoffs for a fourth time in five seasons.
The Dukes have to win their two remaining regular-season games against Stony Brook on Saturday and at Towson on Nov. 23, and then they have to hope that their résumé stacks up well against other at-large contenders.
“We’re just focusing on playing better and doing things right,” JMU coach Mickey Matthews said Monday after his team lost 33-17 at New Hampshire on Saturday. “And let all the playoff things — because that’s totally out of our control. Winning and losing is not out of our control, so we’re going to focus on winning games.”
At 6-4 overall and 3-3 in the Colonial Athletic Association, JMU is a hard sneeze away from falling off a crowded playoff bubble in the CAA, and five of the six teams on it now have better postseason cases than the Dukes.
So while they do need to go 2-0 down the stretch, they also need a lot of help.
“Obviously, two closing wins for JMU is a necessity, but even that doesn’t guarantee the Dukes of an at-large bid,” said Craig Haley, who covers I-AA for The Sports Network and is charge of the outlet’s Top 25 poll, which JMU dropped out of Monday (Madison is 25th in the coaches’ poll). “In fact, I don’t believe their strength of wins will get them into the field.”
JMU’s best win this season is over Villanova, the defending CAA champion and preseason favorite, which is 5-5 overall. It is the closest thing Madison has to a victory over a team with a winning record. The combined record of the Dukes’ opponents this season is 22-37, and since 2012, they have just one win — a 13-10 victory over Towson last year — over a team above .500.
The CAA, according to one college football official, probably will get three or four postseason bids, including the league’s automatic qualifier, which is likely to be Maine (9-1, 6-0). That leaves, at best, three at-larges for five teams: JMU, Towson (8-2, 4-2), Delaware (7-3, 4-2), William & Mary (7-3, 4-2) and New Hampshire (5-4, 4-2).
The unfortunate part about that list for the Dukes is they have already lost to three of those teams — UD, W&M and UNH — giving three of those teams the head-to-head edge and making it extremely important that some of them lose in the next two weeks to help JMU get into the 24-team field that includes 11 automatic qualifiers and 13 at-larges.
At the moment, the CAA’s most playoff-attractive teams, according to the official, are Maine, Towson and William & Mary, with Delaware at No. 4. JMU and New Hampshire are at the back of the line, with Madison going caboose.
According to the Sagarin mathematical ranking — which includes all 252 Division I-A and I-AA football teams — the CAA’s best team is William & Mary, which checks in as the 73rd-best team in D-I. Villanova, thanks to a brutal schedule, is next at 75, followed by Towson (81), Maine (87), New Hampshire (115) and JMU (129).
Four of those five teams also have better strength-of-schedule ratings than the Dukes, whose slate ranks 169th. VU leads that group at 113, followed by UNH (136), W&M (149) and Maine (163). Towson, which beat I-A Connecticut (the Huskies are currently 0-8), is at 171.
Still, JMU does have a chance — if it gets that aforementioned help.
The best-case scenario for the Dukes likely involves Delaware losing out to Richmond and Villanova and Towson losing out to William & Mary and JMU. W&M needs to go 1-1, beating Towson and losing to Richmond. Madison, of course, needs to go 2-0.
That puts JMU, Towson and W&M at 8-4 and Delaware at 7-5, presumably eliminating the Blue Hens and leaving the selection committee to pick its CAA at-larges from the three 8-4 teams.
New Hampshire is with JMU on the very edge of the bubble. UNH’s best win is, like Madison’s, over Villanova, but UNH beat JMU head-to-head. If the Wildcats win out over Albany (1-9) and Maine, they go 7-4 and enter the end-of-the-season at-large discussion.
The Dukes still have a very outside chance at making the playoffs — a chance that would be helped if the Colonial can, as it did three times between 2007-11, get five teams in the tournament, and Haley said that isn’t impossible.
“I believe the CAA will get three to five qualifiers, but four is the safest estimate,” he said. “It really depends on the final two weeks of the regular season, not just in the CAA but across the country.”