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James Madison running back Jawon Hamilton (7) tries to run down the field as he is tackled by a North Dakota State defender.

With the 2019 college football season completed, teams are preparing for spring practices and the upcoming 2020 season. For programs like JMU, that means the beginning of getting back to the FCS National Championship in Frisco, Texas.

It’s a long road to the title game at Toyota Stadium, and it’s also one that tests teams to determine what they’re capable of and what the expectations should be. For the Dukes, expectations will be high once again, but just as in 2019, they’ll want the FCS trophy in the upcoming season.

In 2019, a three-game road stretch served as a benchmark to see how JMU would handle adversity under head coach Curt Cignetti, who was coaching his first games since being hired from Elon. Now, with a season of experience, Cignetti has the chance to further the program with a testy schedule.

CAA opener, non-con and UNC

The Dukes’ 2020 campaign begins with a challenge. The defending FCS champions will start with a home CAA game against Delaware. The Blue Hens went 5-7 (3-5 CAA) in 2019 but return rising redshirt sophomore running back Will Knight, who averaged 7.4 yards per carry and posted 919 yards on the ground in 2019.

A CAA opponent can take down another on any given Saturday, something JMU isn’t immune to. While Delaware will have to answer questions at quarterback and wide receiver, its ground game could catch the Dukes off guard in an early CAA contest.

Following the Blue Hens is the second leg of a home-and-home series with Chattanooga. The two teams faced in 2019 when JMU handled the Mocs 37-14, and now, they’ll meet in Harrisonburg. Chattanooga finished 6-6 (5-3 Southern) last season, but with the home field advantage belonging to JMU this round, the Dukes should have no trouble finding a win.

The biggest test will come in Week 3 when JMU heads south to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to face UNC. The Tar Heels are loaded with talent and are led by former BCS National Champion and head coach Mack Brown.

The Tar Heels boast rising sophomore quarterback Sam Howell, who’s coming off a season where he boasted 3,641 passing yards, 38 touchdowns and seven interceptions. They’ll also welcome defensive end Desmond Evans, the No. 2 overall prospect in the class of 2020 according to ESPN’s Top 300 football recruits.

JMU will have its hands full against UNC, but it’ll be a great benchmark for the remainder of the season. The last time the Dukes faced the Tar Heels was in 2016 — the same season JMU earned the program’s second FCS title.

CAA play resumes

The road trip continues the next week as the Dukes head north to face Albany, who finished second in the CAA in 2019. Rising redshirt sophomore quarterback Jeff Undercuffler finished last season with 3,543 passing yards and 41 touchdowns. The Great Danes also return a 1,000-yard rusher in rising senior running back Karl Mofor, who ended his junior campaign with 1,290 yards and 10 scores.

Following the trip to New York, the Dukes return to Harrisonburg to host in-state rival William & Mary. JMU hasn’t lost to the Tribe in Harrisonburg since 2004, the same year the Dukes won the program’s first national championship.

Luckily for Cignetti and his team, the Dukes get a bye week after their bout with William & Mary. Then, it’s on to Towson and Villanova, two teams that the Dukes spurned CAA title hopes for in 2019. With both of these away games in unfriendly environments, this will prove to be another tough test that’ll define this JMU team and likely have conference championship implications.

Home stretch 

Once JMU returns from Villanova, the Dukes will host Maine and Elon. The Black Bears haven’t played at Bridgeforth Stadium since 2017, and the Phoenix will be returning for the first time since their 27-24 upset over JMU, which snapped the Dukes’ 20-game conference win streak at the time.

Emotions will probably be high in both contests. JMU defensive coordinator Corey Hetherman came from Maine in 2018 when Cignetti was hired, and Elon will hope to replicate its upset. With the end of the regular season in sight, these games will potentially have a great effect on the CAA championship. They could also be solid resume boosters for the 2020 FCS Playoffs if both teams pose as threats.

The final two games of the 2020 regular season will see the Dukes face archrival Richmond on the road and Merrimack at home. The Spiders haven’t given JMU much trouble in the past two meetings — losing by a combined score of 111-16 — and Merrimack will be entering its second season playing Division-I football.

Final verdict

The Dukes don’t have a three-game road trip, but they do have a five-game stretch that sees JMU traveling for four games. However, the Dukes get the luxury of a bye week during that period of games, meaning the rigorous travel schedule will be relaxed as the midst of the season continues.

Every CAA game will have a high risk of an upset. In 2018, it was Elon. In 2019, it was nearly Stony Brook until the Dukes prevailed in overtime. But, Cignetti battled through each test in his first season as head coach and brought his team to the cusp of a national championship.

JMU’s biggest test is its game against UNC. The Dukes will be facing elite Power-Five talent and will show how high they can go in terms of competition. For FCS competition, Villanova is a team yearning to break through and win the CAA for the first time since 2012. In the penultimate away game for the regular season, it could also be a chance for JMU to stumble.

There are 219 days that separate JMU fans and the 2020 football season. Right now, Cignetti is planning how to return to Frisco and leave as champions, but he’ll do that with a motto he’s stuck with all of 2019: one day at a time.

Contact Noah Ziegler at breezesports@gmail.com. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.

There comes a time where an athlete realizes their true potential. When I realized that I was never going to make a living on the court, I figured I’d make it on the sidelines. I hope to be able to attend and cover the World Cup and NCAA tournament.