Unpopular NCAA Rule Bans James Madison From College Football Postseason

Fans are outraged that the undefeated JMU Dukes are banned from playing in a college football bowl game. One Virginia legislator has even declared war on the NCAA.
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Published on November 8, 2023
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  • James Madison University's football team, undefeated and nationally ranked, cannot compete in postseason play thanks to an NCAA rule.
  • Teams transitioning from FCS to FBS must wait two years before becoming eligible for bowls.
  • The university filed an appeal Nov. 6 to the NCAA, which has denied two previous requests for a waiver.
  • The postseason prohibition figures to cost JMU and the Sun Belt Conference millions of dollars.

When the College Football Playoff Selection Committee Rankings debuted Oct. 31, James Madison University (JMU), ranked No. 23 in the nation in the Associated Press poll and sporting an 8-0 record at the time, was nowhere to be found.

That's because the Dukes aren't eligible to compete for a national championship — or participate in any bowl game, for that matter — thanks to an outdated and, some say, unfair rule enforced by the NCAA. What's more, the Sun Belt Conference won't allow JMU to play for the conference title.

JMU fans are up in arms, and Virginia politicians have voiced their disapproval of the NCAA's policy.

Why can't undefeated JMU compete in a bowl game?

Transitioning From FCS to FBS

A longtime powerhouse in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) with two national titles, James Madison made the leap to the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) in 2022 by joining the Sun Belt Conference.

In their first season, the Dukes went 8-3, achieving a No. 25 national ranking along the way. Yet despite its success, the team couldn't compete in a bowl game.

That's because, according to NCAA regulations, any school "reclassifying" to the FBS cannot participate in a bowl for two years. During that period, transitioning teams must participate in orientation sessions and complete compliance reviews, essentially using this moratorium to get their house in order. The rule applies only to football.

Following its first season, JMU appealed to the NCAA for a waiver to reduce the moratorium to one year. The NCAA said no.

"(T)he current two-year transition period was intended to provide adequate time for schools to demonstrate they have met the necessary requirements to become an FBS member and adjust to the increased requirements for student-athlete support in addition to FBS competition," NCAA President Charlie Baker explained to Virginia officials.

On Nov. 6, the university submitted another request for a waiver to the NCAA, noting that JMU "embarked on this transition in ways that no other institution has since the transition rules changed 23 years ago" and that their "student-athletes have achieved an astonishing, unprecedented level of success" since the move to FBS.

"Our student-athletes have done everything the right way, and they view the postseason prohibition in this instance as inexplicable punishment in light of the NCAA's stated priorities," the letter continues. "As many commentators have noted, this is an opportunity for the NCAA to do the right thing for our student-athletes and recognize their exceptional efforts on and off the field."

Officials at JMU of course knew at the outset that they faced a two-year ban but believed the program was worthy of an exception, especially given its successful transition. In their first couple of seasons, transitioning teams often play a mixed schedule featuring both FCS and FBS teams. That wasn't the case with JMU, which negotiated a full slate of Sun Belt competition.

"If the true intent of the two-year transition is to ensure that schools are equipped to operate in a sustainable manner at the FBS level, we believe that we've already checked every box," JMU athletic director Jeff Bourne told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "JMU never wanted any part of transitioning with uncertainty or on a whim; we wanted to be fully prepared, and we believe that plan was successfully executed."

It's certainly not beyond the NCAA to grant exceptions. When Liberty University made the jump from FCS to FBS in 2017, the NCAA waived the requirement that a school must be invited by a conference.

Before this rule was adopted, teams could compete in bowls right away. When Marshall University joined the FBS in 1996, for example, moving from the Southern Conference to the Mid-American Conference, it immediately was bowl-eligible and played in the Motor City Bowl following its first two seasons.

Meanwhile, the Sun Belt's bylaws prohibit teams that aren't bowl-eligible from competing for its conference title. Last year, despite leading the East division, JMU had to concede its title-game spot to Coastal Carolina University, which it had beaten 47-7 during the season.

Despite not making an exception in JMU's case, Sun Belt commissioner Keith Gill credits JMU with making a successful transition to the big leagues of college football and called the NCAA ban "unfortunate."

"James Madison is a prime example of a football program and a university that took the necessary steps to position itself for an FBS move, making significant investments in financial aid, facilities, and staffing to be competitive at the highest level of college football," Gill said in a statement.

With its appeal, JMU became the first school to challenge the NCAA's rule, which also applies to schools transitioning from Division II to Division I. In such cases, teams must wait four years before becoming eligible for postseason play.

Now, 9-0 and ranked No. 21 in the AP poll — one spot ahead of Notre Dame — JMU plays for pride alone.

"Circumstances change, environments change," Bourne told ESPN. "I think there are waivers that are out there and put in place for a reason."

Head coach Curt Cignetti remains optimistic, holding out hope that the NCAA eventually concedes.

"I'm a firm believer that common sense overrides all the rules," he told ESPN.

Virginia Legislators Criticize the NCAA

Fans are naturally upset with the NCAA's decision, as are some Virginia politicians.

Earlier this season, Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares, a JMU graduate, personally appealed to the NCAA for a waiver. Again, the NCAA said no.

"The reason why the NCAA is so unpopular with so many fans of college athletics is it seems like their decision-making makes no sense," Miyares told WHSV in Harrisonburg. … "This is another decision they've made that has no common sense attached to it whatsoever. By every metric, with wins against other teams, teams from Power 5 conferences, JMU has shown they can compete at this level. Let them compete for a championship."

In October, Virginia Senate President Pro Tempore L. Louise Lucas wrote on X, the former Twitter, that if the NCAA continues to hold JMU "hostage to a technical rule and stop them from competing in the postseason" it will "face a very unfriendly future from our legislature."

Lucas added a personal note to NCAA head Charlie Baker.

"I've been in the Senate for 32 years and can think of a number of issues you all have needed help on," she wrote. "Virginia will go to war on this."

Postseason Ban Costs Conference, Schools Money

To be fair, the NCAA's rule isn't arbitrary and does have logic behind it — to a point. Writing for CBS Sports, Shehan Jeyarajah explains:

"While the rule will be a frustration for James Madison fans, it's intended as a buffer for programs transitioning without putting thought into their decision. Some teams have a great quarterback or roster that could compete for national acclaim; a transition to the FBS level is supposed to be a 50-year decision, not to capitalize on one team."

At the same time, however, it's perfectly fine for student-athletes to be opportunistic and seek immediate payoffs. In 2021, the NCAA relaxed its rules governing the transfer portal, eliminating the one-year waiting period and allowing athletes to compete on their new teams right away. Many athletes have used the transfer portal to pursue lucrative name, image, and likeness (NIL) deals without penalty.

So student-athletes can reap immediate rewards from switching schools, but schools cannot reap immediate rewards from switching subdivisions.

In their Nov. 6 letter, JMU officials reference this "evolving landscape" of college sports featuring the transfer portal and NIL opportunities, arguing that "this denial hinders our student-athletes' financial prospects and professional possibilities."

For the schools themselves, the rewards include financial payouts from bowl games. In this coming bowl season, a team from the so-called "Group of Five" conferences — those outside the Power 5 — stands to earn an invitation from the Cotton Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, or Peach Bowl.

Last year, Cotton Bowl participants reaped $4 million for their conferences, which distribute funds among the member schools.

This year, that could be JMU, arguably the best Group of Five team in the nation, playing in the Cotton Bowl or one of similar stature, earning the Sun Belt and its schools that level of cash.

When the dust settles on the college football regular season, there's still a theoretical chance that JMU could go bowling, even in the event this latest entreaty to the NCAA fails.

If there aren't enough bowl-eligible teams — having won at least six games with a minimum .500 winning percentage — then JMU could take advantage of this NCAA loophole and gain a bid. Folks in Harrisonburg are hoping fewer than 82 teams meet these criteria, which would leave open a spot.

The more likely scenario is that James Madison, perhaps 12-0 or 11-1, sits on the sidelines during postseason play, thinking perhaps it set an example convincing enough to persuade the NCAA to rethink its policy and stop disincentivizing teams seeking greener pastures.