James Madison Makes it Look Easy
NCAA Week 6 - James Madison made history this week by becoming the first team ever to crack into the Associated Press Top 25 poll as an FBS newbie, riding a 5-0 start to the season and making the transition from FCS look easy. They rallied from a 28-3 deficit against Appalachian State in Week 4, still the largest comeback victory of the year, and haven't let up since. In the last two weeks, the Dukes outscored their opponents by a combined total of 75-27 in non-garbage possessions, and they are suffocating opponents into submission on defense. They lead the nation in available yards percentage allowed through Week 6, and are giving up only 1.2 points per drive (10th nationally) and 3.9 yards per play (fourth nationally).
FEI certainly didn't see this level of success coming so quickly for James Madison, but that's because it is so unprecedented. Prior to 2022, the Dukes were perennial Colonial Athletic Association champs making frequent deep FCS playoff runs, including a national championship in 2016. They may have been an ideal candidate to make this move at this moment, but recent FCS success doesn't guarantee anything at the FBS level. Twelve different programs made an FBS debut since 2007, and only two (Georgia Southern and Appalachian State, both in 2014) finished that season with a winning record against FBS opponents. None of the 12 finished the season with an above average opponent-adjusted FEI rating, which is why the Dukes started the season with a modest preseason projection according to FEI.
I phase out preseason projections gradually over the course of the year, which means FEI is still catching on to James Madison's ultimate potential in 2022. FEI game projections are only 2-2 straight up and 0-4 against the spread in their games to date. But their regular-season win projections have shifted significantly over the last several weeks. The Dukes were 72% likely to fall short of six wins based on FEI preseason projections, but are now 100% likely to win six or more (and 63% likely to win at least 9 against their 11-game regular-season schedule) as of this week. The projection shift is in part due to their recent possession efficiency numbers, but in large part also due to their relatively weak opposition.
The Dukes are one of 15 teams that remain undefeated through Week 6, but also one of two teams in that undefeated group that have yet to play an FEI top-60 opponent. (That's based on current FEI ratings; Appalachian State had previously been ranked among the top 40, but fell precipitously after suffering a bad loss to Texas State last weekend.) I produce a distribution of strength of schedule ratings each week because context matters when it comes to schedule debates, but James Madison's schedule ranks among the weakest in the nation no matter how we slice it. And it likely won't get much tougher going forward. The Dukes have already played three opponents ranked outside of the top 100 in FEI in addition to an FCS opponent, and they have three more games against teams currently ranked 95th or worse down the stretch.
In terms of the success a good team should have against their competition, James Madison's remaining schedule is more challenging than the schedule they have faced to date, but only slightly, and only because they aren't yet at the halfway point of their season.
Their toughest test may prove to be the November 26 finale against Coastal Carolina, the other "undefeated-but-ain't-played-nobody" team at the midway-ish point of the 2022 season. As part of the NCAA rules for FBS reclassification, the Dukes are not eligible for postseason play this year, neither for the Sun Belt Conference championship nor a bowl game. In lieu of this circumstance (or perhaps inspired by it), James Madison may find itself at the end of the year with an unblemished record and a potential victory over the eventual champion of the conference it is ineligible to win all on the line. Playing this year with nothing to lose, maybe the Dukes simply won't.
2022 FEI Ratings (through Week 6)
Fremeau Efficiency Index ratings (FEI) are opponent-adjusted possession efficiency data representing the per-possession scoring advantage a team would be expected to have on a neutral field against an average opponent. Offense ratings (OFEI) and defense ratings (DFEI) are opponent-adjusted drive efficiency data representing the per-drive scoring advantage a team unit would be expected to have against an average opponent unit. Net drive efficiency (NDE) is the sum of offensive drive efficiency and defensive drive efficiency data representing scoring value earned by offense and defense units per drive. Strength of schedule ratings represent the expected number of losses an elite team two standard deviations better than average would have against each team's schedule to date (ELS), the expected number of losses a good team one standard deviation above average would have against the schedule to date (GLS), and the expected number of losses an average team would have against the schedule to date (ALS). Ratings for all 131 teams are found here, and expanded ratings including projected win totals are found here.