BALTIMORE — The experts say James Madison’s football team will struggle in Year 1 under new coach Everett Withers, picking the Dukes to finish eighth in the Colonial Athletic Association – the program’s lowest ranking in the preseason poll since the CAA added football in 2007.
Consider the message received by Madison’s players.
“All I can do is shake my head,” said senior safety Dean Marlowe, one of JMU’s two representatives at CAA media day at M&T Bank Stadium on Wednesday. “I feel like that’s a little disgusting. I would say. The whole team is kind of mad about that, but it is what it is. We’ll just show them when the season comes.”
JMU, the conference’s premier program in attendance and facilities, finished 6-6 last season – leading to the firing of longtime coach Mickey Matthews and, eventually, the transfer of starting quarterback Michael Birdsong.
With a new coach, new QB and mediocre résumé in recent years, Madison clearly did not impress the league coaches and communications people who voted in the preseason poll, which was released Wednesday.
And Marlowe was right – the Dukes aren’t happy with the lack of respect.
“We’re definitely pissed off about that,” senior center Matt Williams said. “We have high expectations for ourselves, and we always have at JMU. That’s just more fuel to the fire for us.”
Making matters worse on the respect front, only one Madison player was selected to the All-CAA preseason team.
New Hampshire, arguably the Colonial’s best program on the field year-in and year-out, was picked No. 1 in the CAA poll, with traditional powers Villanova, Richmond and William & Mary next in line.
Withers, one of four new coaches in the CAA this fall, was far more diplomatic than his players when discussing preseason expectations. While the Dukes do return most of their offensive line and eight starters on defense to go with a handful of Division I-A transfers, Withers said the transition and unknowns surrounding James Madison likely led to the low preseason pick.
“I would probably pick us eighth, too,” Withers said. “That’s to be expected.”
For a first-year coach, being picked eighth in a 12-team league has a huge upside: It won’t take a lot to beat expectations and be considered a success.
In addition to UNH, Nova, UR and W&M, Towson, Delaware and Maine were also predicted to finish ahead of the Dukes this fall. Not that preseason polls mean a lot. Last season, Maine was picked to place eighth in the Colonial; the Black Bears finished 10-3 and won the CAA title.
“I tell everybody, all this stuff is based on last year’s accomplishments,” New Hampshire coach Sean McDonnell said. “There’s always been a team that’s come up from nowhere because they’re working through last year and getting to be a good football team.”
Overall, this is the Dukes’ lowest preseason ranking in a conference poll since 2003, when they were also predicted to finish No. 8 in the Atlantic 10. In 2002, they were picked No. 11. After winning the 2004 I-AA national championship, though, Madison’s stock climbed rapidly until the string of so-so seasons in recent years.
JMU’s previous low ranking in a Colonial preseason poll was last season: No. 5. The CAA absorbed the Atlantic 10’s football schools in 2007.
New Hampshire, which reached the postseason for the 10th straight year in 2013, received 15 first-place votes Wednesday, followed by Richmond (3), William & Mary (3) and Villanova (2). The only other team to get a first-place vote? JMU, with one.
Last year, the Dukes finished ninth in the CAA with a 3-5 record.
“[JMU’s] a team that’s eighth, that’s what James Madison is right now,” said Withers, the former co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State. “This is a very tough conference and I think the best in FCS football. There’s a lot of top-notch coaches in this conference. I think week-in, week-out, the competition level in this conference will be high.”
Withers said he also picked the Dukes to finish eighth, but admitted that he didn’t do any research for his ballot. One reason? With the number of transfers who drop down to the I-AA level (where players from I-A schools are immediately eligible to play), teams are constantly changing.
“I think anytime you’re playing FCS football, nobody knows how many transfers anybody’s got,” said Withers, who added transfer quarterback Vad Lee (Georgia Tech), tailback Alden Hill (Tennessee) and receiver Sean Tapley (North Carolina). “Obviously, a team like Towson going to the national championship game, who predicted that? Anytime you’re playing FCS football – where you have immediate playing time for guys that drop down can play – can change the outlook or the personality of any team.”
No. 2 pick Villanova returns junior quarterback John Robertson, the CAA’s preseason Player of the Year. Robertson averaged 305.6 yards of total offense last season, ranking second in the CAA and ninth in the nation.
After JMU in the league poll, Stony Brook was picked ninth, followed by Albany, Rhode Island and Colonial newcomer Elon.
“I guess they’re trying to say this transition year is a rebuilding year or whatever they want to call it,” Williams said. “We have great confidence in ourselves. It’s a whole new culture and whole new way we go about things. Our structure and our preparation is completely different.”
JMU’s poor 2013 meant the Dukes missed the postseason for the fourth time in five years. Despite a new offensive coaching staff led by Virginia Tech castoffs Mike O’Cain and Curt Newsome, Madison stumbled down stretch with losses to New Hampshire, Stony Brook and Towson in the final three weeks.
Last season did not sit well with Marlowe, JMU’s lone representative on the All-CAA preseason team.
“It’s a new team,” said Marlowe, who went on to specify that new is a good thing. “I would say 2014 James Madison football is nothing like it was in 2013. It’s completely different.”
And Marlowe offered a prediction of his own.
“We don’t want to be average, we want to be above average. We want to be up there [in the standings],” he said. “We’re going to be up top, we’re going to be there.”
NOTE: William & Mary defensive lineman Mike Reilly was the CAA’s preseason Defensive Player of the Year. As a junior, he posted 11 sacks – good for first in the conference and second in I-AA. Overall, William & Mary led the preseason All-CAA team with seven selections.