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FRISCO, Texas — Ben DiNucci handled the question about as diplomatically as one could want when asked about North Dakota State back in November.
“I don’t think it’s so much, ‘Hey, let’s go beat North Dakota State’ so much as, ‘We’ve got Richmond this week, we’ve got Rhode Island after that, and whoever’s in our way after, we’ll address that then,” he said.
James Madison focused on the responsibilities ahead of it, but just about anyone else with insight into the FCS viewed a Dukes-Bison matchup as an inevitability. Clearly the two best teams in the subdivision, both rolled through their schedules, including in the Playoffs after DiNucci’s expectation-tempering answer.
With the all the detours cleared, the two meet in Frisco for the second time in three seasons, and in the FCS Playoffs for the third time in four years. Giving the frequency and the stakes involved each time, feel free to broach the subject of rivalry.
“You can call it what you want. There's the Clemson-Alabama rivalry,” said JMU coach Curt Cignetti. “In a sense it's a rivalry, even though we don't play every year. By nature of what's happened in recent history it's become a rivalry.”
The Alabama-Clemson parallel holds plenty of weight, and Cignetti isn’t the only one who has broached it.
“We both have a ton of mutual respect for each other. It seems like we’re always the two at the top,” said North Dakota State offensive lineman Cordell Volson. “It’s become that rivalry, just like Alabama-Clemson.”
The Crimson Tide and Tigers played in four consecutive College Football Playoffs, including three championship games. The Dukes and Bison aren’t quite to that level, but it’s close.
“I wouldn’t call it a rivalry, “ said James Madison linebacker Dimitri Holloway. “But you just know, if you get far enough in the playoffs, you will see them.”
After James Madison’s historic win at the Fargodome in 2016, the Bison scored revenge with a title-game win in 2017.
The two programs were lined up to square off in last year’s Playoffs, as well. An upset loss to Colgate left James Madison thinking, “That should have been us,” as DiNucci described it.
“It was a wake-up call,” said JMU’s D’Angelo Amos said of the 2018 exit. “You can get a little complacent, thinking it will be given to you, teams will back down. Too many people didn’t see us losing to Colgate, and they’re a great team -- we knew what they could do. But from the outside, there was a lot of hype. And if you get distracted and caught up in it, especially as a young team like we were last year, that came back to bite us.
“This year, us knowing what that felt like, we didn’t want to repeat that,” Amos added. “We knew we had a job to do.”
The disappointment in the Playoffs preceded the hiring of Cignetti as head coach, whose arrival further emphasizes the Alabama parallel.
Cignetti spent the first four seasons of the Nick Saban era with the Crimson Tide, and in taking the James Madison vacancy, went to work with a similar philosophy to that seen in Tuscaloosa.
“When you walk into a place like this, it's like walking into Alabama,” Cignetti said. “You're expected to win the conference championship. You're expected to make a deep run into the playoffs. And you just sort of felt that every single day, that based on the resources you've been given you should be kind of in that position.”
Cignetti embraced the expectations. Combined with the motivation of the 2018 season’s failure, James Madison had the necessary approach to rekindle this budding rivalry with North Dakota State.
DiNucci may not have wanted to talk Bison in November, but it’s that attitude specifically that has the Dukes facing them in January.