As James Madison advanced toward last season’s storybook ending as FCS national champion, even head coach Mike Houston admitted to having a little Cinderella – that the Dukes were ahead of schedule.
But what Houston came to realize during his first season in Harrisonburg, Virginia, is if a team wins the CAA Football title – and James Madison went unbeaten in conference play – then it has a chance to wear the national title that season.
The strong 12-team conference had at least one semifinalist in each of the three prior seasons, and then there was the glorious run from 2003 to '10 when it had a national finalist in all but one season, including four different schools winning it all.
The run included a James Madison title in 2004. Houston and the Dukes matched it last season.
With the college football season fast approaching, here are five key questions for the CAA:
Will JMU get ahead of itself?
It all looks good on paper because James Madison, which returns 12 starters and has replaced some losses with FBS transfers, can win a second straight national championship. But even as the Dukes try to slow the season to a week-by-week process, the focus everywhere will be on repeating. They’ll wear a target on their backs and at times find it hard to play to win because the pressure will make them play not to lose. And yet they just may be there in the end.
Can Villanova adjust without Talley?
Villanova has moved forward without coach Andy Talley, who’s been there every step of the way since he revived the Wildcats' program in 1985. He has such a close relationship with his former right-hand man and new head coach Mark Ferrante that the Wildcats hope Talley will still provide guidance moving forward while Ferrante puts his stamp on the program. It’s a new era for the Wildcats.
Will the injured stars make it back?
Most teams suffer a key injury, but they hope it doesn’t involve their best player. Albany, one of the last two teams not to receive an at-large playoff bid a year ago, probably won’t get there again unless junior running back Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks overcomes a torn ACL and medial meniscus suffered in the final game last November. Richmond senior quarterback Kyle Lauletta, a two-time 3,000-yard passer, also is coming off an ACL tear, although the Spiders won two playoff games with his backup, Kevin Johnson.
How long until Delaware is Delaware again?
After its first back-to-back losing season since 1938-39, Delaware’s traditionally strong program is desperate for quick gains under first-year coach Danny Rocco, who arrived from a successful stint at Richmond. The Blue Hens return a large senior class and 19 starters. They aren’t playing the two teams to finish below them last year, Elon and Rhode Island, so the schedule is tougher than most CAA teams. A winning record and a .500 finish in the conference would be a successful season.
Who are the NFL prospects?
James Madison didn’t have any player drafted in April despite winning the FCS title, but it has possibilities in safety Raven Greene (6-0, 200) and defensive end/outside linebacker Andrew Ankrah (6-4, 235) if they finish strong as seniors. Dukes left tackle Aaron Stinnie (6-5, 290) also will draw looks, although he will have to add quality weight. Stony Brook offensive lineman Timon Parris (6-5, 310) and Villanova safety Rob Rolle (6-0, 190) are the top CAA prospects outside the national champs.
— 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 James Madison University Athletics)