When Alex Wood ended a four-year tenure as James Madison's coach March 15 to become the Minnesota Vikings' quarterbacks coach, he said the program was "in pretty good shape, not great shape."
Wood, who in his first year guided the Dukes to the Division I-AA playoffs, apparently was understating the facts.
Former Georgia secondary coach Mickey Matthews has moved in and led the Dukes to a 4-1 record and a No. 14 ranking in Division I-AA. However, their success must be surprising to the other coaches in the Atlantic 10 Conference; they picked James Madison to finish 10th of 11 teams in their preseason poll.
"It's just midseason now, so we haven't had any parties yet," Matthews said. "There had been a lot of in-house fighting on the team. But it's amazing what you can accomplish when no one cares who gets credit. Our team chemistry is really good among the coaching staff and players."
Matthews arrived to find a team filled with players from across the nation who had transferred from Division I-A schools or junior colleges. Although Matthews said he will concentrate on recruiting local high school players, the transfers are among the team leaders in most categories.
Curtis Keaton, who leads the team in rushing, and safety Derick Pack, who has a team-high 63 tackles, transferred from West Virginia. Starting quarterback Charles Berry transferred from North Carolina State. Linebacker Mike Luckie, a senior transfer from Georgia (where he left behind triplet brothers Miles and Dustin), is third on the team with 34 tackles, and defensive back Ron Atkins, who came from Los Angeles Valley Community College, is second on the team with 57 tackles.
One non-transfer making an impact is wide receiver Earnest Payton. A Douglas High graduate, he is the team's top receiver, averaging 15.2 yards per catch.
The Dukes are ranked for the first time since 1997, but that's not the only milestone the team has reached this season. James Madison also halted a nine-game road losing streak Sept. 18 at New Hampshire, a win that left the players "jumping around like they won the lottery," Matthews said. The Dukes also have beaten ranked foes Delaware and Villanova. Matthews attributes his team's success to a lighter attitude in practice. But his goals for the team are quite serious: to win the league and national championships "this year and every year."
"We were going to work extremely hard over the summer to have fun out on the practice field. We really stressed that," Matthews said. "It's okay to laugh on the practice field. College football is a game, and we're supposed to have fun."
Gophers Out of the Hole
Minnesota entered the national rankings this week for the first time since 1985, but the No. 25 Gophers' stay might be short-lived. After starting with wins over Ohio, Louisiana-Monroe, Division I-AA Illinois State and Northwestern, Minnesota faces four ranked teams in the next five weeks, starting with Saturday's home game against No. 20 Wisconsin. Minnesota's first sellout crowd since since 1993 is expected at the Metrodome. . . .
On Saturday, the Badgers will be without Coach Barry Alvarez, who is awaiting knee replacement surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. But he won't be cut off from the game. Alvarez's hospital room will be equipped with a big-screen television and a direct phone line to Wisconsin's coaching staff.
Assistant head coach John Palermo will serve as acting head coach, and offensive coordinator Brian White and defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove will call the plays. But Alvarez, who will have the added benefit of watching instant replays, will be offering advice and motivation. . . .
The Big Ten has seven teams in the Associated Press media top 25 this week, the first time a conference has placed that many in the AP rankings. Several conferences shared the record with six.
Defending Division I-AA champion Massachusetts is 1-3 and in serious danger of not making the I-AA playoffs. The Minutemen returned 16 starters, including running back Marcel Shipp, who has rushed for more than 100 yards in 16 straight games, and quarterback Todd Bankhead. But Massachusetts has struggled offensively; Bankhead hasn't thrown a touchdown pass in the past two games. . . .
Hawaii is in almost the opposite situation. The Rainbow Warriors had the nation's longest losing streak--19 games--before beating Eastern Illinois on Sept. 11. Since then, they have won three more games to improve to 4-1 under new coach June Jones, the former NFL coach. It hasn't hurt that Hawaii has played one road game so far. . . .
Memories of a 20-game winning streak that ended last season must be distant for UCLA. The Bruins are 2-5 since, with wins over Boise State and Fresno State. UCLA faces Oregon on Saturday.
With back-to-back one-point victories, No. 10 Georgia might be the luckiest undefeated team in Division I. The Bulldogs held on for a 23-22 win over Louisiana State last week when Will Witherspoon batted down quarterback Josh Booty's two-point conversion pass with 18 seconds remaining. The week before, Georgia needed a missed extra point by Central Florida kicker Javier Beorlegui late in the game to take a 24-23 win. The Bulldogs will need more than luck this week at No. 6 Tennessee. . . .
No. 16 East Carolina returns home to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium to face Southern Mississippi this week. It's the Pirates' first home game since Hurricane Floyd devastated the Greenville, N.C., area. A win would give East Carolina a clear path to a Conference USA championship and an undefeated season, but the Pirates have never beaten Southern Mississippi in Conference USA play. . . .
Oregon State (3-1) is expecting a sellout at 35,362-seat Parker Stadium for Saturday's game against Washington. It will be the the Beavers' first home sellout for an opponent other than Oregon since 1984. Sophomore running back Ken Simonton, who ranks second nationally in rushing at 171 yards per game, will play despite a dislocated thumb suffered against Southern California last week.
Among the five computer rankings that will be added to the Bowl Championship Series rankings formula this season, the nearly 70-year-old Dunkel Index, which ranks more than 600 teams regardless of classification, may be the toughest to figure. This week's Dunkel Index has Division I-AA Georgia Southern ranked 34th, ahead of such teams as Ohio State (21st in the AP poll, but 42nd in the Dunkel Index) and Brigham Young (24th in the AP poll, but 36th in the Dunkel Index).
Georgia Southern is the 1998 I-AA runner-up and is ranked No. 1 in most I-AA polls this week. But it lost to Oregon State earlier this season, 48-41; on the other hand, Oregon State is ranked 31st in the Dunkel Index.