It was fashionable to bash CAA Football a few years ago because its dominant run of success tailed off.
Quite simply, it was going to be hard for the CAA to continue a run that included having a national finalist in all but one year (2005) during the eight seasons from 2003-10. That included four different national champions, Delaware (2003), James Madison (2004), Richmond (2008) and Villanova (2009).
While the Missouri Valley Football Conference has been the most successful FCS conference in the 2010s, CAA Football is right behind, generally regarded as the second-best of the 13 conferences.
CAA teams also have come back to be among the last ones standing in the FCS, with New Hampshire reaching the national semifinals in 2013 and ’14, Towson going to the 2013 national final and Richmond advancing to last year’s semifinals.
Here are five key questions with the CAA in what should be an excellent season ahead:
1. Is the State of Virginia best again?
The 12-team CAA is spread across nine states along the eastern seaboard, but last year’s conference title was concentrated to Virginia, with James Madison, Richmond and William & Mary tying for the championship, each with a 6-2 conference record. Richmond will be favored in the conference’s preseason poll because it returns a veteran lineup from the squad that went the furthest in the playoffs. JMU and William & Mary aren’t far behind, though, and there’s incredible depth in the title race with New Hampshire, Towson and Villanova, a trio that was only one game off the championship, and a Delaware squad that appears to be a playoff contender discuss having recent struggles.
2. Will youth be served in the CAA?
Hey, this is college football, not college basketball — veteran teams usually dominate the landscape. This is not the year to have a young team in the CAA. Only 34 percent of the players who were selected to the CAA first, second and third teams last season were seniors. Most of the offenses return a high percentage of starters, and it appears to be the year of the running back considering all but CAA rushing champ Jacobi Green of Richmond returns from last year’s top 10 in the conference.
3. Is 13 lucky or unlucky for New Hampshire?
One of those few units being overhauled is New Hampshire’s defense as the Wildcats return only four starters. Sean McDonnell, the two-time FCS coach of the year, needs to find quick answers from a unit led by co-captains Ryan Farrell (linebacker) and Casey DeAndrade (cornerback). Add in some uncertainty at quarterback — senior Adam Riese is replacing three-year starter Sean Goldrich — and it’s not a certainty the Wildcats will extend their 12 straight appearances in the FCS playoffs, which is longest active streak in the nation. But their program knows how to overcome adversity, they don’t play Richmond and Villanova in the CAA’s unbalanced schedule and they gain an emotional boost from having a new Wildcat Stadium.
4. Who are the NFL prospects?
Offensive lines will have a harder time stopping Villanova pass rusher Tanoh Kpassagnon than pronouncing his name (tawn-o pass-N-yo). The late-developing Kpassagnon, whose father is from the Ivory Coast and mother from Uganda, leads the CAA candidates with his athletic mix of size (6-foot-7, 275 pounds), speed and strength. There’s a good crop of defensive backs with DeAndrade (5-11, 212), James Madison cornerback Taylor Reynolds (6-0, 195) and Richmond free safety David Jones (6-1, 187). The physical traits of New Hampshire tight end Jordan Powell (6-3, 244) and Towson fullback Emmanuel Holder (5-11, 266) also are undeniable.
5. How good will Andy Talley’s swan song be?
Villanova wants to send out its retiring head coach with a banner season — Talley's 32nd with the Wildcats. The 73-year-old has won 221 games at ‘Nova, including a record 136 CAA victories. Dual-threat quarterback Zach Bednarczyk got eight starts as a redshirt freshman because of John Robertson’s knee injury last season, and the defense will be solid, led by Kpassagnon and linebacker Austin Calitro, the team’s leading tackler. After the opener at Pittsburgh, the first half of the schedule is manageable. The Wildcats should challenge for a playoff berth in Talley’s final season.
— 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 University of New Hampshire Athletics)