The cat is out of the bag. The jig is up. Whatever you want to call it, the report is in: the James Madison Dukes are headed to the Sun Belt of the FBS, immediately upgrading their football program and more. But the writing seems to have been on the wall in Harrisonburg for a while, with the program now having won multiple FCS championships, JMU’s domination of the CAA in various major sports (most notably in football and women’s softball, among others), and the Dukes’ massive stadium expansion that took place ten years ago now, which boosted Bridgeforth Stadium’s capacity up over 24,000 seats.
While it’s hard to believe that JMU’s stadium was expanded way back in 2010 — feels like it was just yesterday — to be sure, there were rumors way back then that the Dukes were posturing for a jump to the “big leagues” of the FBS.
As a reminder, below are the primary differences between FCS and FBS college football programs:
- The NCAA’s Division I is divided into the FBS and FCS. FBS stands for Football Bowl Subdivision, signifying “bowl games” that teams play in at the end of each season (for boat loads of money).
- In total, there are 10 conferences and 130 FBS teams. Five of the conferences make up what’s called the Power 5 (Big 10, Big 12, SEC, PAC-12, ACC).
- The FCS is the other subdivision of NCAA’s Division I. It stands for Football Championship Subdivision and was known as Division I-AA from 1978-2005.
- The FCS is still Division I football (like FBS), but with major differences:
- The FBS has a four-team College Football Playoff, while the FCS hosts a 24-team playoff for the NCAA D-I Football Championship.
- FCS teams can only have 63 players on scholarship, while FBS football teams can have 85 players.
With JMU’s pending move, the CAA is now scrambling to adjust; in an era of constant school movement and realignment, nowadays most “mid-major” (read: non Power 5) conferences are just one or two school exits away from being rendered completely irrelevant — or worse, rendered completely extinct. It’s a scary reality for the CAA, but one that the conference’s leadership, as well as W&M’s senior leadership, must contemplate in order to mitigate moving forward…so, what’s their plan?
So just which schools would join? How many schools is the press currently reporting as interested in the CAA? Do these schools seem to fit in with the league — and with William & Mary?
Monmouth, based in New Jersey, boasts both football and basketball programs; Fairfield, based in Connecticut, maintains a basketball program, but not a football program — and while that difference might seem trivial, it’s very important. Several CAA teams field basketball teams, but do not maintain football programs. In the eyes of some, this puts CAA schools with both football and basketball programs at a disadvantage when it comes to basketball; the thought is that schools without football programs can put more money and resources into their basketball programs.
Ultimately though, it’s not the end of the world, but it’s certainly something that the CAA will need to take into account when thinking through how many teams it can feasibly house in the league’s two biggest revenue generating sports, that of course being football and basketball. In case you’re wondering, UNC Greensboro is like Fairfield, in that it maintains a basketball program but no football program.
If and when JMU departs the CAA, the league would be left with 11 football teams. Of course, Monmouth would bring that number back to 12. Similarly, on the basketball side, the league could actually jump up from 10 teams (minus JMU, plus Monmouth, Fairfield, and UNCG) to 13 teams. However, it’s not yet entirely clear that all three schools would join the CAA as “full” members (i.e. joining for all sports), though it’s entirely possible (albeit unlikely) that they would choose not to do so.
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE:
Did we not mention that conference realignment can have a domino effect? Well, insert Elon and College of Charleston. If the report is true, and if Elon and Charleston jettison the CAA for the Southern Conference, the CAA would lose two major, southern schools that most William & Mary fans have come to enjoy.
The Southern Conference, which William & Mary was actually a member of from 1936-1977, currently includes:
- University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
- The Citadel
- East Tennessee State University
- Furman University
- Mercer University
- Samford University
- University of North Carolina at Greensboro
- Virginia Military Institute
- Western Carolina University
- Wofford College
And while we’re not saying that William & Mary should or should not join the SoCon if Elon and Charleston leave, we certainly are saying that W&M leadership must at least entertain the possibility. In a time of constant budget cuts and “doing more with less,” the regional nature of the Southern Conference (with over half the teams in one of the Carolinas & Virginia), the Tribe would potentially stand to save a substantial amount of money on travel expenses if the CAA’s purported plan to reorganize into a North and South division falls through for one reason or another. The financial incentive, in and of itself, is a significant contributing factor to any future decision that W&M AD Brian Mann and his staff will have to make.
As noted, William & Mary also has significant history in the Southern Conference, having experienced its football “heyday” there in the 1940s when former W&M head coach Carl Voyles and the “Indians” would routinely dominate Virginia Tech and UVA, among other major football powers of the era — all before the FBS / FCS divide even existed.
But with so much uncertainty and potential movement surrounding the CAA in the league’s present state, it would likely behoove William & Mary to stay put and see how things shake out in the Colonial before planting its future in another conference.
But what do you think, Tribe fans? Leave us a comment on social media or at the bottom of this article and let us know! The next couple months will be interesting, to say the least; but one thing is for certain: you can rely on us to keep you covered.
LET’S GO TRIBE.