(STATS) - James Madison has totaled the most yards and scored the most points in the FCS, but second-year coach Everett Withers says the offense is still growing into what the Dukes want it to be this season.
To be better, though, JMU is going to have to step out of its comfort zone of playing home games against inferior competition. The Dukes (3-0) start that task this week and do so with a No. 9 ranking in the STATS FCS Top 25 - their highest since the 2012 season.
Jacksonville State solidified the No. 1 ranking Monday, two days after posting a thorough win over Tennessee State. Coastal Carolina remained No. 2 and four-time defending FCS champion North Dakota State moved up one spot to No. 3 after Sam Houston State was upset by Lamar.
James Madison, coming off nine wins and an FCS playoff appearance in Withers' first season, hopes it is talented enough to eventually play with the powers atop the FCS. The Dukes have one of the best quarterbacks in the nation in senior Vad Lee, but the early schedule hasn't been taxing - home wins over Morehead State, Lehigh and Albany.
Still, the Dukes totaled over 600 yards of offense in each win. They rank high in a number of FCS statistical categories, including No. 1 in total offense (652 ypg), scoring offense (51 ppg) and first downs (100).
But after overcoming six turnovers with what he called a "relentless" performance to beat Albany, 42-28, Withers believes JMU has to take its play to an even higher level. Five of the Dukes' next seven games are on the road, including Saturday against FBS opponent SMU.
"Our message this week is to find a way to get better. Find a way to be better offensively, defensively and special-teams wise," Withers said.
James Madison is one of four CAA Football teams in the Top 25. The highest-ranked member is No. 5 Villanova (2-1), which moved up one spot following a win over Delaware, but it was costly because quarterback John Robertson, the 2014 FCS player of the year, suffered a knee injury which will keep him sidelined at least this week against Penn.
Villanova, which received four first-place votes, is tucked into the rankings behind Jacksonville State (2-1), which received 93 of the 158 first-place votes; Coastal Carolina (3-0), with 36 first-place votes; North Dakota State (2-1), with 17 first-place votes; and Illinois State (2-1), with two first-place votes.
The only other first-place votes went to No. 6 South Dakota State (2-0), with six. They were followed in the Top 10 by Northern Iowa (2-1), Chattanooga (2-1), James Madison and Liberty (2-1), which earned one of the weekend's bigger wins against Big Sky power Montana.
Eastern Washington (1-2) moved up to No. 11 after coming out on top of a 55-50 track meet against Montana State. Next up were Sam Houston State (0-2), Youngstown State (2-1), Montana (1-2), Montana State (2-1), Fordham (2-1), Portland State (2-0), Eastern Kentucky (1-1), Richmond (2-1) and Cal Poly (1-2).
The Missouri Valley Conference has the most top Top 25 teams with six, including North Dakota State, Illinois State, South Dakota State and Northern Iowa in the top seven. But South Dakota State is the only one of the six (Youngstown State and Indiana State are the other two ranked teams) that has a game this week.
A national panel of sports information and media relations directors, broadcasters, writers and other dignitaries select the STATS FCS Top 25. In the voting, a first-place vote is worth 25 points, a second-place vote 24 points, all the way down to one point for a 25th-place vote.
The Top 25 is released every Monday afternoon during the regular season, except for Sunday morning, Nov. 22, prior to the selection of the 24-team FCS playoff field. A final Top 25 will follow the FCS championship game, which will be held Jan. 9 in Frisco, Texas.