The first CAA game of the season features a pair of playoff hopefuls
The first Colonial Athletic Association game of the spring 2021 season features opponents that had surprising 2019 campaigns — albeit for much different reasons.
UAlbany emerged to win nine games, including a first-round FCS playoffs rout of NEC champion Central Connecticut State, despite being picked to finish last place in the preseason CAA poll. Head coach Greg Gattuso and his staff built a roster ready to compete for the postseason year-after-year, evident in the returning talent on both sides of the ball the Great Danes boast in 2021.
The 2019 campaign was also surprising for New Hampshire, which was without future Hall of Fame head coach Sean McDonnell. McDonnell took a medical leave-of-absence just before the season kicked off. Interim Ricky Santos did an admirable job, but the Wildcats fell short of the postseason for just the second time since 2004.
McDonnell is back, and the Wildcats aim to start a new streak of playoff appearances — one which would likely come at the expense of a team like UAlbany in this shortened postseason.
UAlbany at New Hampshire
Kickoff: Friday, March 5 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: UAlbany -2
When UAlbany Has the Ball
UAlbany features one of the most dynamic backfields in the FCS, with quarterback Jeff Undercuffler and running back Karl Mofor. Mofor rushed for 1,290 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2019 — 107 and two of which came against New Hampshire. He's also a capable pass catcher, showing as much with 37 receiving yards against the Wildcats in October 2019.
Undercuffler was a contender for the Jerry Rice Award in '19, given to the nation's top freshman. North Dakota State's Trey Lance doubling up as the first winner of both the Jerry Rice and Walter Payton Awards prevented Undercuffler from being a serious threat to take home the honor, but with 41 touchdown passes, he was among the most prolific quarterbacks in the nation.
UAlbany's undergoing some significant turnover on an offensive line that was experienced during the postseason run. This will be a subplot to follow as the Great Danes try to move the ball on a program that has long built its reputation on stingy defense. The 2019 Wildcats allowed just over 20 points per game and return key pieces like Evan Horn and Pop Bush in the secondary, as well as Niko Kvietkus up front.
When New Hampshire Has the Ball
While New Hampshire's offense struggled at times in 2019, a common denominator in the Wildcats' most impressive wins was the play of quarterback Max Brosmer. As a freshman, Brosmer threw three touchdown passes in an upset of a top-10-ranked Villanova team then secured the Brice-Cowell Musket with a pair of scores against Maine.
Leading rusher Evan Gray is gone, but Carlos Washington Jr. was just behind Gray in both yards and touchdown production. Dylan Laube, the No. 3 man in the run-game rotation, also was one of New Hampshire's most reliable receiving targets. Laube and wideout Brian Espanet caught three and four touchdowns, respectively, and both are back this spring.
New Hampshire can anticipate a heavy dose of blitz against UAlbany. The Great Danes made their bones defensively with consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. And while the leader of that group, Eli Mencer, is gone, Levi Metheny and Mazon Walker aren't and the duo combined for 20.5 tackles for a loss in 2019.
The unusual spring season includes an unprecedented divisional setup in the CAA. UAlbany and New Hampshire share the North, which also features Villanova, Stony Brook, and Delaware — any of which could realistically win the division. And Rhode Island, the sixth team, endured several close losses in 2019; the Rams have the talent to be a dangerous spoiler in the North.
That puts a premium on every game. UAlbany was outstanding in 2019 and has the capacity to build on that. New Hampshire was long a standard-bearer for the CAA under McDonnell and benefits from his return. This should be a nail-biter that comes down to the final possession.
Prediction: UAlbany 24, New Hampshire 21
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.