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At Delaware, it Feels Like Playoffs or Bust in 2016

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Coaches often go out of their way to downplay the expectations of their team while playing up the competition around them.

Missing the FCS playoffs for five straight years has the Delaware Blue Hens ready to lay it all on the line. With their rebuilding project complete, they feel they have to rebound in a big way.

“I think we are going to have a very good team in the fall - a playoff-caliber team,” fourth-year head coach Dave Brock said. “Certainly we had a very good spring.”

The tradition-rich Blue Hens haven’t been to the playoffs since 2010, when they lost to Eastern Washington in the national championship game. The longest stretch without a playoff appearance in school history has encompassed K.C. Keeler’s final two seasons at Delaware and Brock’s first three. Last year’s 4-7 record (3-5 CAA Football) was their worst since 2008, and second-worst since 1967.

But with 18 starters (10 on offense and eight on defense) returning as well as many more players from the second unit, the Blue Hens believe a return to the playoffs is within reach – if not imperative.

Related: Projected FCS Playoff Qualifiers for 2016

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Last season, the Blue Hens played well at North Carolina and even beat CAA Football rivals William & Mary and New Hampshire, both playoff participants. But they also lost to two of the conference’s worst teams in Rhode Island and Albany, so they need to be more consistent to turn the corner this season.

Injuries factored into last season’s demise, but Delaware averaged only 14.9 points and 286.5 yards per game. Included was an FCS-low 67.1 passing yards per game – hardly a number befitting a program that boasts former quarterbacks Rich Gannon and Joe Flacco.

While returning starting quarterback Joe Walker or backup Blake Rankin would figure to be better with an experienced offense, the Blue Hens will run the ball extensively with one of the deeper running back stables in the FCS. Thomas Jefferson, the CAA offensive rookie of the year, and Kareem Williams broke into the rotation while Jalen Hills and Jalen Randolph were out with injuries. All four return behind a veteran offensive line.

The defense should be stout again after allowing only 20.5 points per game to rank third in the CAA. Penn State transfer linebacker Troy Reeder and cornerback Malcolm Brown, who was injured last season, will be part of a unit that returns 19 players from the final two-deep, including linebacker and leading tackler Charles Bell and standout defensive tackle Blaine Woodson, a pair of juniors.

Delaware will open its season by hosting Delaware State on Sept. 1.

— Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.

(Top photo by Villanova University Athletics)