HARRISONBURG — James Madison and Delaware first played each other in football in 1984. Since then, the two schools have played 18 times, and from 1991 to 2010, they never went more than one season without meeting.
But in 2011 and 2012, Madison and UD did not play, dampening what is one of the Colonial Athletic Association’s best rivalries — one that heated up in the early 2000s after the two programs won back-to-back Division I-AA national titles: the Blue Hens in 2003 and JMU in 2004.
Madison (3-1 and ranked 14th in I-AA) and Delaware (3-1) will meet for the first time since 2010 on Saturday at 7 p.m. in Newark, Del.
“It’s almost like we’re playing a non-conference opponent, we haven’t played them in so long,” JMU coach Mickey Matthews said. “I’m sure the Delaware people feel the same way. We haven’t played them. I don’t think we have anyone one our team who has ever been to Delaware.”
So what happened to the matchup?
Blame the math of scheduling.
“It was just one that didn’t work out,” said Scott Meyer, the CAA’s associate commissioner for football.
The CAA uses a consultant — Bortz Media & Sports Group — to make its schedules for football and men’s and women’s basketball. The league gives the firm its parameters, and the firm, specifically a man named Arthur Steiker whom Meyer described as a “mad scientist,” does all the calculations.
“He can give us several different models in terms of five-year rotations, 10-year rotations, and that kind of thing,” Meyer said. “We pick the best model.”
Meyer said three primary factors kept the Dukes and Blue Hens apart. The first, and perhaps the most impactful, was conference realignment.
“The simple answer is the change in… the conference roster, and that basically dictated who’s facing who,” Meyer said.
In recent seasons, the CAA has added and lost Old Dominion, added and lost Georgia State, and lost Massachusetts. It added Albany and Stony Brook. Hofstra and Northeastern folded their football programs. In May, the Colonial announced the addition of Elon, which forced the league, Meyer said, to scrap a completed 2014 schedule that was essentially the reverse of this season.
Before realignment, Meyer said, the CAA tried to schedule two to three years in advance.
Meyer said the new 2014 schedule will be released soon, after the CAA decides whether to break what will be a 12-team league next year into divisions or leave it as it is now: with unofficial regional “pods” created for ease of scheduling — which is the second reason JMU and Delaware haven’t played. They aren’t in the same pod.
To alleviate travel costs of too many airplane trips — JMU to Maine, for example — the CAA groups teams by region. Those teams play each other every year. UD, roughly a four-hour drive from Harrisonburg, was aligned with the Mid-Atlantic schools (Towson and Villanova); JMU went with the southern (ODU, Richmond, William & Mary).
The third thing that kept the Dukes and Delaware apart was simple logistics. Meyer said that, when scheduling, the CAA avoids having teams play more than two consecutive home games or road games. Schools also have special requests about dates — homecomings, parents weekends, etc.
There’s another thing Meyer said the league keeps in mind when scheduling: It doesn’t like schools to go more than two years without facing each other. JMU and the Hens — who, before 2011, last didn’t play in 2003 — had to meet this season, and that was part of the parameters given to Steiker.
Making that happen, Meyer said, wasn’t easy. Requiring a matchup causes ripples in the math, and that’s why the CAA simply couldn’t force JMU and Delaware together in 2011 and 2012.
“The more you deviate from good, even clean numbers, the more curveballs you throw in there,” Meyer said.
The future of the JMU-UD matchup — the teams are 3-3 against each other since 2005 — is to be determined. The Elon version of the 2014 schedule is still in the works, so it’s unknown if Delaware will visit Bridgeforth Stadium next season. The CAA, though, hopes it works out.
“In a perfect world, yes, [JMU and Delaware would play],” Meyer said. “But, given the situation with Elon and having to add a new team, that remains to be seen.”