There's little question that Lehigh's trip to Harrisonburg, Virginia is going to be that test.
Last year, first year head coach Everett Withers guided the Dukes, whose fan base expects FCS playoff appearances and deep playoff runs, probably exceeded expectations, going 9-4 and making the playoffs in his first year as James Madison head coach.
In 2015, the Dukes will be in an unfamiliar place - living up to the expectations.
The Withers era started slow.
James Madison started the season 2-3 last year, but cne of those wins came against Lehigh.
A spirited effort by the Mountain Hawks fell just short of pulling off an upset of the Dukes, coming agonizingly close to putting them away before QB Vad Lee led James Madison on a 12-play, 98 yard drive that would finally erase an 11 point deficit late in the 4th quarter.
|Close, Lehigh, But No Cigar|
"We played a talented football team, but are obviously disappointed with the outcome," Lehigh head coach Andy Coen said after the game. "We played well enough to win the game in a lot of aspects, but we left too many plays on the field. There are a lot of positives, but it eats at me that this was a very, very winnable football game and we didn't win it."
After struggling in the first five games, including defeats against pesky Delaware and another FCS playoff team, Villanova, JMU finally began to click.
Wins over nationally ranked in-state rivals Richmond and William and Mary highlighted a seven game winning streak to close the regular season, making them a no-doubt-about-it pick for the FCS playoff field with a 9-3 overall record.
This year, they'll be looking for more, as national polls have them anywhere from No. 12 to No. 17 in Athlon, Lindy's, and The Sporting News. Basically, they're a upper-echelon team in the CAA, and if they live up to expectations, they're projected to be an FCS playoff team once again.
It's safe to say that no Lehigh player forgot about last season's near-upset, but this year the Mountain Hawks will unquestionably be approaching this game differently - not necessarily as a game of equals, but as prohibitive underdogs on the road.
|Doing Things The Right Way|
Two of the players, CB Jimmy Moreland and LB Rhakeem Stallings, were big contributors on JMU's Duke defense last year, but they were still booted from the team for their involvement in a misdemeanor larceny.
Last season, when previewing the Dukes, I noticed something peculiar in coach Withers' preview video.
The first thing you see in Withers' introduction video is a shot going into a dark gymnasium with the byline "5:45 AM", where Withers is leading the team in wind sprints and drills.
"Learn to do things right," he said. "If you learn to do those things, it becomes easier to have success down the road. We're trying to build that culture here."With the announcement of the dismissals this offseason, that quote of "building a culture of doing things right" really took on added meaning. To coach Withers, doing things right all the time is how things are supposed to be done.
Losing two key defensive players might give Lehigh a tiny bit more of a chance of pulling off an upset in Harrisonburg, VA in early September. But not that much more of a chance, because the Dukes return a powerful offense from last season.
|Dukes Fans Hope To Do A Lot of This When Lehigh Visits|
On defense, sophomore LB Kyre Hawkins (96 tackles) looks like a guy who needs to be the guy who steps up with the departure of Stallings.
But the three suspensions does mean that the Dukes will be a very young team in a lot of areas. Lee and Abdullah have shown they're great players, but the rest have plenty to prove.
About the only thing we know for sure is that Lehigh will be in for a huge challenge in Harrisonburg this fall, facing a young, talented Dukes team that promises to be right there in their quest for a CAA title and maybe even a deep playoff run.
Continuing my picks of the conferences Lehigh will be playing this season, I see James Madison doing very well in the CAA championship race, but falling short of Villanova for the league title. It would be folly to pick New Hampshire below the Top 5 - they've qualified for eleven straight postseason playoff appearances - and William and Mary seem like they're on the brink of breaking through to the postseason once again.
One of the more interesting stories in the CAA is Towson, who originally had a U. of Miami QB transfer coming into the program, but was dismissed before ever playing a down in the CAA. With him, they had a chance to be a very interesting team in the CAA title race. Without him, they look like they could finish below .500 again.
If there's some dark horses in the CAA race, they would come in the form of Richmond (who have a lot to replace), Maine, Delaware or Stony Brook. The parity in the CAA is such that the separation between a .500 middle-of-the conference team and an FCS playoff participant is very small.
2, James Madison
3. New Hampshire
4. William and Mary
8. Stony Brook
11. Rhode Island