James Madison's first experience in the AP Top 25 was a learning one.
A year ago, the Dukes debuted at No. 25 after rolling through their first five games. The excitement was evident, probably too much so. They lost their next three.
“Rankings are always good, but you've got to go out there and prove it. Rankings are just a number at the end of the day, so we've just got to go out there, do our best and prove why we deserve all the hype that we got,” said Elijah Sarratt, the Dukes receptions leader with 31, including three touchdowns.
“You never want to get too big-headed. That’s when things start going left. That’s when you just want to stay in the moment, stay humble and just keep on working.”
No. 25 James Madison (7-0, 4-0 Sun Belt) has plenty of motivation to do just that.
Old Dominion (4-3, 3-1) could move into a tie with JMU for the East Division lead with a victory. The Monarchs have won two in a row and, unlike the Dukes, are eligible to win the division title; JMU is not as it transitions to the FBS level.
Georgia State and Georgia Southern also each have one loss in the East, which Monarchs coach Ricky Rahne said shows there's good football to be played.
“There's not a game out there that you know the outcome before it starts,” he said. “That's exciting for me and I know it's exciting for our players and our coaches that you're going to play in a league where each game is going to be an absolute battle.”
The Dukes lead the country, allowing just 36 net rushing yards per game. While those figures are aided by 34 sacks, they've not allowed any of their last 10 opponents to finish with 100 yards rushing. Two finished with negative rushing yards.
The Monarchs have run for as many as 336 yards (Marshall) and as few as 15 (Texas A&M-Commerce).
James Madison is allowing 290 passing yards per game, largely because opponents have had to abandon the run. Old Dominion needs to find some ground success because it has allowed 38 sacks, the most in the conference, for minus 217 yards. I's a good bet that some of the 11 interceptions JMU has made came from a QB throwing under duress.
As Sarratt said, the Dukes have to prove that a national television game as a ranked team isn't going to their heads. It's one thing to say it, another to show it to be so.
“We didn’t handle it well. I feel like guys know what it is and what it’s not. They got the message. So these guys will continue to put our heads down and work and be even more hungry,” defensive lineman Jamree Kromah said.
They can be tide-turners in games with double digit underdogs, whether as turnovers, big plays on special teams or penalties that negate big plays. If they come early, then can silence a raucous home crowd or whip it into a frenzy.
At the end of last season, the Dukes hosted Coastal Carolina knowing the Chanticleers would represent to East in the championship game because JMU was not eligible. It was a rout, 47-7 by the Dukes, and “We Are The Champions” blared through the stadium when it was over. JMU coach Curt Cignetti doesn't want his team discussing any similar lingering feelings.
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AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll