STATESBORO, Ga. (AP)James Madison is experiencing success on an unprecedented timetable, landing its first AP Top 25 ranking in its first season in the Bowl Subdivision.

Heady times, indeed, but it’s only one step for the Dukes, according to coach Curt Cignetti.

Another milestone could come Saturday when No. 25 James Madison visits Georgia Southern in a Sun Belt Conference game. With a win, the Dukes (5-0, 3-0 Sun Belt) would achieve the first 6-0 start for a first-year FBS program.

James Madison is relishing the quick rise to national recognition.

”I think that is great publicity for the university, our program, athletic department, our boosters, the people that care so much about James Madison and followed them through the years,” Cignetti said.

”It’s sort of another barrier, took another step. It’s not a final destination and obviously doesn’t affect anything that’s going to go on between the lines and our guys understand that, too.”

Cignetti called the ranking ”last week’s statement” and added ”what you do on Saturday is this week’s news.”

Georgia Southern (3-3, 0-2) started strong this season, including a 45-42 win at Nebraska on Sept. 10, which helped finalize the decision to fire Cornhuskers coach Scott Frost.

Georgia Southern has lost three of four games since beating Nebraska, including last week’s 41-33 loss at in-state rival Georgia State. The Eagles lost five turnovers, including four interceptions, in the setback.

”When you play a game where you have five turnovers and have a lot of self-inflicted wounds, those are the games you’re going to lose in the fourth quarter,” said Georgia Southern first-year coach Clay Helton.

DEFENDING VANTREASE

Helton said quarterback Kyle Vantrease, who threw for 359 yards, didn’t deserve sole blame for the four interceptions last week. The Eagles were hurt by drops and deflections.

”Sometimes, stat sheets say one thing and when you watch the game it was a collective effort,” Helton said, adding that Vantrease ”played like a warrior.”

”The one thing about Kyle that I was really impressed with was his demeanor the whole way through,” Helton said. ”He never got down, he continued to say next drive, next drive.”

Vantrease has passed for 1,933 yards to set Georgia Southern’s single-season record.

WINNING WITH DEFENSE

James Madison’s defense supports its Top 25 ranking. The Dukes rank No. 2 in the nation in total defense, allowing only 227.4 yards per game. They lead the nation in rushing defense, allowing 41 yards per game.

The Dukes rank No. 15 with their average of 15 points allowed per game.

”They have one of the best defenses not only in this league but in the country,” Helton said. ”They have a team that warrants being talked about nationally and they deserve the ranking they have.”

RESTART FOR HELTON

Helton was Southern California’s head coach from 2015-2021 before being fired after a 1-1 start last season. He was hired by Georgia Southern on Nov. 2, 2021.

Though he’s still looking for his first conference win at Georgia Southern, Helton says the Eagles are on schedule.

”I do see our young players getting better and better and better each and every week,” he said.

CENTEIO FLOURISING IN THIRD HOME

James Madison quarterback Todd Centeio began his career at Temple before transferring to Colorado State. He then moved to James Madison as a graduate student this year and has flourished in his third home.

Centeio has passed for 15 touchdowns with only one interception. He earned his second Sun Belt offensive player of the week award after passing for a season-high 394 yards with four touchdowns in last week’s 42-20 win over Arkansas State.

With his 15 TD passes, Centeio already has matched his 2021 total in 12 starts for Colorado State.

SERIES HISTORY

The Dukes must look back at their years as an FCS contender to remember Georgia Southern is a difficult place to win. The Eagles are 7-1 in their series against the Dukes, including 4-0 in Statesboro. The teams last played in 1992.

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