It turns out the road to the FCS playoffs is Interstate 81.
VMI will have to travel less than an hour north on I-81 to make its playoff debut Saturday, when it will have to face one of the flagship programs in FCS football.
The Keydets (6-1) will visit James Madison (5-0), the No. 3 overall seed in the 16-team playoff field, in the first round at 2 p.m. Saturday at Bridgeforth Stadium in Harrisonburg.
“They were very excited that JMU is who we play,” VMI coach Scott Wachenheim said Sunday in a phone interview. “A lot of those young men wished JMU recruited them.
“A lot of our players drive by that beautiful stadium and beautiful campus on their way to post. Sometimes, back pre-COVID, they would go up there and have weekend celebrations there.”
The pairings for the playoffs were announced Sunday on ESPNU. The Keydets, who had claimed the Southern Conference’s automatic playoff bid by beating The Citadel on Saturday, gathered on campus to watch the selection show.
“You always dream of that stuff,” Wachenheim said of VMI being part of the selection show. “It was just a dream come true. We were very excited.”
This will be VMI’s first meeting with the Dukes since JMU beat the visiting Keydets 44-16 in 2009.
“It’s a good matchup. It’ll be fun,” VMI senior safety A.J. Smith said in a phone interview. “Being so close to them, … as VMI cadets, on weekends you go over there and visit. I’ve got a lot of best friends that go there.
“I don’t think we could’ve asked for a better team or a better selection for the first round.
“It’ll be a good challenge for us, but we’re going to come in prepared.”
The pairings were chiefly determined by geographic proximity.
VMI is 3-10 all-time against the Dukes, with VMI’s last win in the series having come in 1990.
‘We felt that that was going to be our first-round opponent,” Wachenheim said. “The NCAA, especially in the COVID environment, is trying to cut costs.”
JMU won the FCS championship in 2004 and 2016. The Dukes lost in the FCS title game last season and in 2017. This will be JMU’s 17th playoff appearance, including its seventh straight.
“We’re very excited to have the opportunity to play one of the nation’s best,” said Wachenheim, whose team was ranked No. 15 in one FCS poll last week and No. 12 in the other. “We’re going to relish the challenge. It’s a tremendous opportunity. Every competitor wants to compare himself against the very best. I think JMU is the very best.”
The Keydets, who are enjoying their first winning season since 1981, captured their first SoCon title since 1977 by beating The Citadel. VMI went 6-1 in SoCon play.
VMI’s historic bid did not go unnoticed by ESPNU. Wachenheim was interviewed on the selection show. The Keydets’ watch party was also shown on the program.
“It was kind of surreal … to be nationally televised and nationally recognized,” Smith said. “This is kind of what you ask for in a college football experience.”
JMU was ranked No. 1 in both FCS polls last week. But the playoff selection committee awarded Missouri Valley Football Conference champ South Dakota State (5-1) the No. 1 overall seed and Southland Conference champ Sam Houston State (6-0) the No. 2 overall seed. South Dakota State beat three-time defending FCS champ North Dakota State on Saturday.
Dukes coach Curt Cignetti was not happy his team was only seeded third.
“I’d like to thank the committee for providing us with extra inspiration,” Cignetti said on the selection show. “I just want to thank everybody for making my job easier.”
JMU, which went 3-0 in Colonial Athletic Association play, won the CAA’s South Division. Delaware (5-0, 4-0) won the North Division.
CAA athletic directors voted to award Delaware the league’s automatic playoff bid on Saturday, so JMU wound up with an at-large bid. There are only six at-large teams in the field.
JMU and Delaware are the only CAA teams in the field. Richmond (3-1) did not get an at-large bid.
VMI is the only SoCon team in the field. East Tennessee State and Samford were among the last four teams left out of the playoffs.
The Dukes rank No. 1 in the FCS in total defense (175.6 ypg) and second in scoring defense (9.8 ppg). They rank fifth in rushing offense (236.0 ypg) and and 13th in scoring offense (33.8 ppg).
James Madison quarterback Cole Johnson has thrown for 907 yards this spring. Former VMI standout Kris Thornton, who transferred to JMU in the summer of 2019, has caught a team-best 17 passes.
There are only 16 teams in the field instead of the usual 24 because of the coronavirus pandemic and the move to a spring season, so no teams reaped first-round byes and only the top four teams were seeded.
The VMI-JMU winner will face Missouri State (5-4), which is steered by former Louisville coach Bobby Petrino, or North Dakota (4-1) in the quarterfinals. Both of those teams are from the Missouri Valley Football Conference, which put five teams in the field.
VMI is not the only first-timer in the playoffs. So is Pioneer Football League champ Davidson (4-2), which is steered by former Washington and Lee coach Scott Abell.