James Madison is back in the Top 25 after a 7-0 start to the season, and coach Curt Cignetti is confident the Dukes are better prepared for continued success this time.
A year ago, after starting 5-0 and being ranked No. 25 for the first time as a Bowl Subdivision program, they promptly lost three straight.
“I think last season we were ranked and then went down to Georgia Southern, there was a lot of hoopla around here,” Cignetti said Monday, the day after the Dukes appeared in both the AP Top 25 and the coach's poll for the first time.
“We crossed that bridge a little bit when we played them last time because we were 5-0 again, the same match up, and I thought we handled it much better.”
On Oct. 14, this time at JMU's Bridgeforth Stadium, the Dukes rolled, 41-13.
“This team has learned the lessons from the past,” Cignetti said. “It’s very mature. One thing I’ll say about this team is they have been extremely focused day in, day out and played with great effort and energy every Saturday.”
After that skid last season, the Dukes won their last three, including a 47-7 blowout of then-No. 23 Coastal Carolina in what would have been a battle for the Sun Belt Conference's East Division title if the Duke's had been eligible during their FCS transition.
After that game, Queen's “We Are The Champions” blared over the PA system and Cignetti admitted that he was “disappointed we didn't score 65.”
This year, when they were picked to win the division but are again ineligible to play for the conference championship, he's not sure that bitterness is still evident.
“I don’t know. I can’t say that for sure," he said. "I think this team’s really focused on taking care of business and doing something special.”
The Dukes are 4-0 in conference play and coming off a 20-9 victory at Marshall, their first-ever win against the Thundering Herd. Marshall finished with minus-4 rushing yards, the second Dukes opponent to finish with a negative rushing total. That was thanks in great measure to eight sacks for minus-60 yards, including five by Jalen Green. Earlier, they held Troy to minus-12 yards.
The Marshall victory also made James Madison 4-0 on the road, including consecutive wins at Virginia, 36-35, on a touchdown pass with 55 seconds to play, at Troy, 16-14, and at Utah State, 45-38 after squandering a 24-point lead.
They play three of their next four games at home, beginning Saturday night against Old Dominion (4-3, 3-1), a team they beat for the first time just last year.
The Dukes' ranking also marks the sixth consecutive season that a team from the Sun Belt has been ranked in the Top 25 during the season, and Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina, Troy and Louisiana have each finished ranked at least once.
“It gives us national exposure,” Appalachian State coach Shawn Clark said. “It shows our strength as a conference to go play and be successful. It's not surprising that we have those teams in the top 25, and we'll continue to get more."
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AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/college-football