Of all the FCS teams scheduled to play FBS opponents in 2017, the James Madison Dukes are the most likely team to leave an FBS opponent with egg on its face.
James Madison found its stride at the end of last season, crushing one opponent after another in the playoffs. The Dukes’ closest game during the run was in their 27-17 win over the North Dakota State Bison, a team that had won five straight national championships. In that game, James Madison led the whole way thanks to a strong defensive effort and the play of running back Khalid Abdullah. He ran for 187 yards and broke NDSU’s back with a 55-yard scamper that set up a late touchdown to seal the deal.
If you want to see James Madison at its absolute best, look at the stat lines from its game against No. 5 Sam Houston State in the Quarterfinals. The Dukes led 65-0 with three minutes left to play and embarrassed Walton Payton Award winner Jeremiah Briscoe. The quarterback had thrown for over 4,400 yards and 57 touchdowns coming into that game, but he went 13-of-44 for 143 yards and two interceptions in a laugher.
The Dukes don’t have Abdullah any more, but they will have a trio of very good running backs. Cardon Johnson and Trai Sharp each carried the ball often last season, with Johnson averaging 6.2 yards per carry and Sharp averaging 5.6 yards per rush. Johnson has spent the offseason rehabbing a torn Achilles’ suffered near the end of the regular season, but he has been participating in practice.
As good as those two were, neither of them may end up being the starter. Marcus Marshall decided to transfer from Georgia Tech after a fallout with the coaching staff at the end of 2016 and should make an immediate impact. He was second on the Yellow Jackets in rushing last year and could have a huge year at the FCS level.
All of that is bad news for an East Carolina run defense that was pretty bad in 2016. After being one of the better run-stopping teams in the country from 2013-2015, the Pirates allowed 5.4 yards per carry last season.
ECU may have to tweak its 4-2-5 scheme in order to stop the run. The Pirates lost three of their top four leading tacklers from last season and are extremely undersized at defensive end. James Madison has some hogs on the offensive line and will open up holes all day long if ECU leaves just six in the box.
The defensive line might not be able to get to reigning Colonial Offensive Player of the Year Bryan Schor either. Schor isn’t asked to throw the ball much in James Madison’s offense, but he is very effective when he does. He passed just 21 times per game last year but averaged over 10 yards per attempt.
ECU’s defensive line couldn’t get to quarterbacks at all last year. The Pirates tallied just eight sacks despite having those undersized ends that are supposed to be able to get to the quarterback. The secondary wasn’t able to force turnovers either, intercepting just five passes.
James Madison’s strengths match up well against what East Carolina wants to do on offense. Head coach Scottie Montgomery wants the Pirates to throw the ball all over the field, and James Madison is more than happy to let them try after what they did to Briscoe.
Jordan Brown and Raven Greene form the best safety tandem at the FCS level and will make life difficult for East Carolina’s passing attack. Greene received an extra year of eligibility from the NCAA, and having him and Brown patrolling the secondary is huge.
The ECU receiving corps is a big question mark with Zay Jones gone. Jones graduated as the all-time leading receiver in FBS history, and without his ability to consistently get open, East Carolina’s passing game may really struggle—especially early in the season.
Expect the spread for this game to be around a Pick ‘Em. James Madison showed it can hang with the big boys last season against North Carolina. The Dukes had three 70-yard-plus touchdown drives in the first quarter and held a lead for a while before eventually succumbing to the Tar Heels. East Carolina isn’t nearly as good as that North Carolina team, so the Dukes might win this by double digits.