FCS college football 2021: CAA preview
By CRAIG HALEY
(Stats Perform) - CAA Football rests on an elite level in FCS college football, but the conference is anxious for just a bit more this season.
Since James Madison captured the CAA's sixth and most recent national championship in 2016, the conference has knocked at the door for more titles:
2017: James Madison lost in the national final;
2018: The CAA gained a record six playoff bids before Maine was ousted in the semifinals;
2019: James Madison lost in the national final;
2020-21 spring season: Delaware, which won the conference title, and James Madison fell in the semifinals;
The CAA is incredibly deep in talented teams again this season. The conference is back to having normal standings after Towson opted out of the spring conference season due to the pandemic and the schedule was regionalized by North and South divisions.
Here's a preview of the upcoming CAA season:
(With Spring 2021 Season Record Unless Noted)
1. James Madison (7-1, 3-0) - The Dukes return most of their key players for their 50th season of football. They have won 38 of their last 40 matchups against CAA opponents, including three playoff victories. Wide receiver Antwane Wells caught four of Cole Johnson's seven touchdown passes in three spring playoff games. Ethan Ratke needs only three field goals (he has 72) and 15 points (he has 392) to match FCS career marks by a place-kicker.
2. Delaware (7-1, 4-0) - Four All-CAA preseason selections - defensive end Chase McGowan, linebacker Johnny Buchanan and defensive backs Nijuel Hill and Kedrick Whitehead - return to a defense that allowed the second-fewest yards per game (239.4) and points per game (14.4) in the spring among FCS teams that played more than two games. The offense's four preseason selections include running back Dejoun Lee, the CAA offensive player of the year.
3. Villanova (2-2, 2-2) - Among active FCS quarterbacks, Dan Smith has accounted for the most touchdowns (109), rushing TDs (38) and rushing yards (2,538), and he's No. 2 in total offensive yards (9.960). Since the start of the 2019 season, running back Justin Covington is averaging 7.9 yards per carry and has 10 touchdowns in 10 games.
4. New Hampshire (0-1, 0-1) - After a 24-20 loss to Albany, COVID-19 issues played havoc with the remainder of UNH's spring season. While the Max Brosmer-led offense must improve on the CAA's lowest scoring average (20.2 ppg) in 2019, the defense will be fierce with the likes of defensive tackle Niko Kvietkus and safety Evan Horn. Coach Sean McDonnell (154-96) needs two more CAA wins to reach 100.
5. Richmond (3-1, 3-1) - The Spiders felt snubbed of a spring playoff bid after they lost only to James Madison, and every starter returns to their motivated cause. Quarterback Joe Mancuso ranks eighth in program history with 5,245 yards of total offense, but the strength of the team is the defensive front seven, including spring co-CAA defensive player of the year Kobie Turner (23 career tackles for loss) and Darius Reynolds at defensive end and Tyler Dressler and Tristan Wheeler at linebacker.
6. Rhode Island (2-1, 2-1) - Having lost significant talent from the 2019 season, URI was a big surprise in the spring, earning ranked road wins over Villanova and Albany as newcomers Kasim Hill (quarterback) and Kevin Brown Jr. (running back) proved to be difference makers. Despite the success, the Rams allowed a CAA-worst 255 rushing yards per game.
7. Albany (1-3, 1-3) - The Great Danes were set back by injuries this past spring. The most dangerous offensive duo in the CAA could be quarterback Jeff Undercuffler (FCS freshman-record 41 TD passes in 2019) and running back Karl Mofor (3,608 career scrimmage yards with 26 TDs).
8. Maine (2-2, 2-2) - With veteran offensive linemen and receivers, quarterback Joe Fagnano figures to continue his outstanding touchdown-to-interception ratio (25-to-4) through 12 career games. The lack of any defensive players on the All-CAA preseason team reflects how the "Black Hole" defense needs to get back on track after spring opponents averaged 33.5 points per game.
9. Towson (2019: 7-5, 4-4) - Transfer quarterback Chris Ferguson passed for 6,091 yards and 46 TDs in the 2017-19 seasons at Maine, going 1-1 in starts against the Tigers, before he spent the 2020 season at Liberty. The defense returns the team's co-tackler leader in 2019 (safety S.J. Brown) and No. 3 tackler (linebacker Christian Dixon).
10. Elon (1-5, 0-4) - Quarterback Davis Cheek (5,624 career passing yards) missed the spring season due to injury, so his return reunites him with another former CAA offensive rookie of the year, running back Jaylan Thomas. Safety Chris Coleman has 175 career tackles, including 29 in just two spring games. Elon's sixth game at Maine on Oct. 9 will be the 1,000th in program history.
11. Stony Brook (1-3, 1-3) - The Seawolves' spring-ending win at Albany ended a seven-game losing streak that was their longest in nearly 20 years (nine straight defeats between 2000-01). As usual, the running attack should be one of the best in conference as Ty Son Lawton and Seba Nekhet work behind All-America guard Kyle Nunez. Former Morgan State cornerback Donte Small is an excellent addition.
12. William & Mary (1-2, 1-2) - The Tribe all are grown up for coach Mike London's third season because he's relied heavily on young players such as quarterback Hollis Mathis and safety/return specialist Bronson Yoder. The senior leadership comes from third-year left tackle Andrew Trainer and defensive end Will Kiely (133 career tackles, 25.5 tackles for loss).
PRESEASON OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF YEAR
James Madison running back Percy Agyei-Obese - The more carries, the better with the 6-foot, 203-pound Agyei-Obese, who averaged over 24 carries and 102 yards per game during the spring season. Often working right up the middle of a defense, he enters his final season with 2,374 rushing yards and 29 touchdowns in his career.
PRESEASON DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF YEAR
James Madison defensive lineman Mike Greene - The statistics aren't overwhelming, but CAA coaches named Greene their co-defensive player of the year this spring because they know about the need to scheme against him with double-teams. The 6-3, 282-pounder, who can work from the edge or in the interior of the line, has totaled 121 tackles, 27 tackles for loss and 13 sacks (for an impressive 96 yards in losses) in 46 career games.
2022 NFL PROSPECT
James Madison offensive lineman Liam Fornadel - The talent is quite high at JMU, but few players are as experienced as the 6-5, 310-pound Fornadel, who's started 33 career games and played in 46. A left shoulder injury sidelined him this past spring, so he will have to answer that concern for the next level, where he is projected for the guard position. It surely helps his cause that three former Dukes' offensive linemen were on the 2020 Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers' roster.
Home not so sweet: In CAA conference games, road teams were 26-22 in 2019 and 12-7 this past spring. Included in that time is the road team winning all seven conference games that went to overtime.
With all teams returning experienced quarterbacks, pass defense could separate teams in the title race. In the spring, Delaware and James Madison were two of the best in the FCS with defending the pass. Who is going to step up the play this fall?
3 MUST-SEE GAMES
Richmond at Villanova (Sept. 18) - These are two of the stronger teams in the CAA, but the depth of teams is so high that the difference between a win and a loss in a conference opener is striking.
James Madison at Delaware (Oct. 23) - This is the first meeting since JMU's win over the Blue Hens in the 2018 FCS playoffs. Each went unbeaten in the spring regular season before advancing to the national semifinals.
Villanova at Delaware (Nov. 20) - The Battle of the Blue should be a difference-maker when the playoff selection committee determines its field later that night. Delaware ended an eight-year slide against the Wildcats in April.
Updated August 26, 2021