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As another wave of conference realignment begins, will JMU make a move to the top tier of college football?

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James Madison’s Bridgeforth Stadium

In college athletics, the tides in the sea of change again are high.

The decisions of Texas and Oklahoma to bolt from the Big 12 and join the SEC started to topple a line of dominoes that seems far from its end.

Speculation about James Madison’s future in the Colonial Athletic Association and at the FCS level of Division I again has been stirred.

The Dukes are established among the country’s top FCS programs — annual national championship contenders — and have financial and facility resources on par with the highest tier of Division I, the FBS level.

So, in the midst of the movement in progress, could JMU finally make a move? The question remains open.

JMU director of athletics Jeff Bourne released a statement to media outlets on Friday in response to the conference shuffling.

“We wholeheartedly believe that James Madison University brings value to any conference as an outstanding academic institution with a broad athletics program featuring success across multiple sports,” Bourne said. “We will continue to work actively to ensure that JMU is in the best position for its future so as to continue providing the ideal experience for our student-athletes.”

Bourne is not commenting further at this time.

The most notable dominoes that have tumbled are that, to replace Texas and Oklahoma, the Big 12 said last Friday it will add Cincinnati, Houston and UCF from the FBS American Athletic Conference, as well as independent BYU. They’re slated to become members no later than the 2024-25 athletic year.

According to ESPN, AAC commissioner Mike Aresco is interested in moving quickly to add two to four members to fill the open spots. The AAC, before the departures of Cincinnati, Houston and UCF, was an 11-member league.

“Our remaining schools are unwavering in their commitment to competing and succeeding at the highest level and we will not allow external factors to put a ceiling on our potential,” Aresco said in a statement. “We remain unified and resolute and will consider all of our options as we move the American into our second decade and beyond.”

The 12-team FBS Sun Belt Conference also is open to adding members.

Sun Belt commissioner Keith Gill said in a statement last Friday that he spoke with the conference’s CEOs and athletics directors Thursday about realignment “and how it puts us in a more advantageous position for our programs to thrive.”

“Throughout this process, if we identify a school that adds value to the Sun Belt, we’ll certainly consider them for membership,” Gill said.

The Athletic reported Wednesday that sources at JMU say “they have engaged with multiple FBS conferences.”

Whether that could be the AAC or the Sun Belt remains to be seen.

JMU, from an athletic budget standpoint, is tops in the CAA and already in the same neighborhood as other AAC schools and larger than Sun Belt schools, according to figures in USA Today’s college finance database. For the 2018-19 academic year, JMU’s budget stood at $52,704,654.

By comparison, the smallest AAC budget in the database was South Florida’s — it brought in $55,045,769 in revenue in 2018-19.

The largest Sun Belt budget in 2018-19, according to the USA Today numbers, was Appalachian State. It had $37,996,512 in revenue in 2018-19.

From a facilities standpoint, JMU’s Bridgeforth Stadium seats 24,877, and the school opened its new $139.5 million, 8,500-seat Atlantic Union Bank Center last year.

By moving up a level from FCS to FBS, JMU could expect its athletic revenue to increase. But expenses could rise as well.

Competitive standing would be a factor, too. JMU football has gone 60-9 during its last five seasons, with three trips to the FCS national title game. The Dukes won the national championship at the end of the 2016 season. The Dukes, with a move to FBS, would trade that perennial playoff standing for a playoff system that’s smaller and much tougher to make, particularly for schools in Group of Five conferences like the AAC and Sun Belt.

JMU football coach Curt Cignetti, asked about realignment Tuesday, said the key at this time of the year from his perspective is maintaining focus on the season. But he acknowledged that he’s seen the articles about what’s happening as schools swap conference affiliations.

As JMU perhaps ponders its options, he said he trusts the university’s leadership to do what’s best.

“So, you control what you’re going to control,” Cignetti said. “Who knows what’s going to happen down the road. ... But I think this is a football program with enormous potential, and would be a credit to any conference.”

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