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CAA Football teams find it hard to catch breath

Baltimore, MD (Sports Network) - Quarterback Pat Devlin doesn't care if an opponent on Delaware's CAA Football schedule is from the north or the south. He says they could even come from the east or west, if that were possible.

No matter the direction, there rarely is a break for any CAA team in the FCS' premier conference.

"They put the teams on your schedule and you've got to go out and play 'em," Devlin said.

Devlin's positive, business-like approach isn't embraced as much by others within the CAA who are gulping over what lies ahead this season. After the conference lost two of its lower-tier programs following last season - when Northeastern and Hofstra dropped the sport - the conference dropped from two six-team divisions to one 10-team alignment. And, oh, are there now even fewer chances for a team to catch its breath than in past seasons.

Underscoring the CAA's success is the fact its teams have appeared in six of the last seven FCS championship games, and Delaware (2003), James Madison (2004), Richmond (2008) and Villanova (last season) have won titles during the big run of success. Massachusetts won in 1998.

The conference is so strong that Richmond was picked in the Top 10 nationally of at least five preseason media polls, yet was selected only sixth in the CAA's preseason poll of head coaches and sports information directors. That poll was released yesterday at the conference's media day at M&T Bank Stadium, and the brutally tough top five is led by defending national champion Villanova, followed by William & Mary, New Hampshire, James Madison and Devlin's Delaware squad.

Second-year program Old Dominion, which enters next year, and first-year program Georgia State, which follows in 2012, probably can't arrive fast enough for the rest of the conference.

Three Key Games
Villanova at William & Mary, Oct. 2 - This a rematch of Villanova's 14-13 win in the FCS semifinals last December. Who will run the ball better, Villanova's three-headed monster of Chris Whitney, Matt Szczur and Aaron Ball, or 2009 CAA Football rushing champion Jonathan Grimes of William & Mary?

Richmond at New Hampshire, Oct. 9 - Considering the depth of CAA Football's 10-team, one-division alignment, the loser of this game might have a hard time staying in the title chase. Richmond has the name recognition on defense (DT Martin Parker, LB Eric McBride and CB Justin Rogers), but don't overlook how New Hampshire has raised its defense in the last couple years.

Villanova at Delaware, Nov. 20 - Is it possible Villanova could be unbeaten going into its season finale? If so, this is a brutal way to try to clinch an unbeaten regular season. The Blue Hens are confident about ending a three-year absence from the FCS playoffs and return future NFL quarterback Pat Devlin.

"It's a league that has a lot of talent," Villanova coach Andy Talley said. "You've got to show up; you just have to show up and know that any of those teams have the ability on any given day to beat you. I love our league. The coaching is as good as it's ever been. So you're going to be challenged every week."

As in past seasons, CAA teams will continue to play eight conference games - not the possible nine. But the loss of Hofstra (5-6, 3-5 last season) and Northeastern (3-8, 3-5) from the former North Division will be felt, especially if a team faces injuries to key players during the heart of their conference schedule.

Delaware has played two of the toughest schedules in the FCS over the last two seasons, so it probably deserves some type of break this season. It gets one in the fact that the one CAA team it won't play is New Hampshire. Villanova won't play Massachusetts (picked eighth), William & Mary doesn't get Towson (10th), James Madison will miss Rhode Island (ninth), and Richmond and Maine (seventh) won't square off.

"It attests to how competitive our league is. You really can't take a week off," said Dino Vasso, New Hampshire's preseason all-conference cornerback. "There's really four or five teams that could win the whole thing (FCS title) every year."

"It's going to be a hard year with everything combined," added William & Mary preseason all-conference linebacker Jake Trantin, "so we're going to stay focused and really concentrate on each week."

Richmond defensive tackle Martin Parker, who will challenge for national defensive player of the year honors (The Sports Network's Buck Buchanan Award, sponsored by Fathead.com), points out that Northeastern and Hofstra weren't gimmes on anybody's schedule. Their record last season just happened to reflect that they faced CAA teams week-in and week-out.

"If you put them in any other conference, they're probably tops in that conference," Parker said.

But not having those teams on the schedule could hurt a CAA team come playoff time. Perhaps one will have a 6-5 record instead of the 9-2 it could have in another conference. Perhaps one will make the playoffs, but be beaten up physically.

Delaware finished 15-1 and won the national title in 2003, but had to escape last-minute or overtime wins over Villanova, UMass, Maine and New Hampshire to get there.

"It's the nature of this conference," Delaware coach K.C. Keeler said. "And what you have to do is win the close games. Us losing that Richmond game (16-15) early in the season (last year) really, really killed us because it came back to bite us. We didn't get that seventh win or we'd have been in the playoffs."

"I think any of us, to get into the playoffs has the ability to win the whole thing," Talley said. "Last year, New Hampshire did, William & Mary certainly did, Richmond certainly did. The four of us would have had a chance to go depending on whether you had a home seed or didn't have a home seed or where you ended up playing somebody. If William & Mary played us at William & Mary, they probably would have beaten us."

The team that emerges the least damaged come the end of the regular season, on Nov. 20, will be a true champion, according to Mickey Matthews, the two-time Eddie Robinson Award (FCS coach of the year) at James Madison.

"I've looked at people's schedules down through the years, and whether it is a southern team or a northern team, you would see a team got a schedule break - who the crossover games were," Matthews said. "When I was at Georgia, it was that way. In the SEC, your crossover games many times determine how difficult your schedule was. That's the way we were, the three crossover games. Although we're still not all playing each other, it's going to be a more truer champion this way."

Of course, the extra grind of this season will relent a little in the coming seasons, with ODU and Georgia State pushing the CAA to 11 or 12 teams, with Rhode Island perhaps dropping out. That Rams' decision is likely to be made next month.

"It will change once the other two teams come in," Richmond coach Latrell Scott said. "That just makes it that much more competitive. I think it will be fun to have one champion."

CAA PRESEASON POLL
(Head coaches and sports information directors)

1. Villanova (17 first-place votes)
2. William and Mary
3. New Hampshire (2)
4. James Madison
5. Delaware (1)
6. Richmond
7. Maine
8. Massachusetts
9. Rhode Island
10. Towson

PRESEASON CAA ALL-CONFERENCE TEAM

Offensive Player of the Year - Matt Szczur, WR, Villanova

Player of the Year - Terence Thomas, LB, Villanova

Offense

QB
Chris Whitney, Villanova

RB
John Griffin, Massachusetts;
Jonathan Grimes, William & Mary

FB
Kendall Gaskins, Richmond

WR
Tre Gray, Richmond;
Kevin Grayson, Richmond
Matt Szczur, Villanova

TE
Emil Igwenagu, Massachusetts

OL
Brant Clouser, Villanova;
Keith Hill Jr., William & Mary;
Ben Ijalana, Villanova;
Drew Lachenmayer, Richmond;
Theo Sherman, James Madison

Defense

DL
Ronnell Brown, James Madison;
Yaky Ibia, Towson;
Brian McNally, New Hampshire;
Martin Parker, Richmond

LB
Tyler Holmes, Massachusetts;
Eric McBride, Richmond;
Terence Thomas, Villanova;
Jake Trantin, William & Mary

S
Anthony Bratton, Delaware;
John Dempsey, Villanova

CB
Justin Rogers, Richmond;
Dino Vasso, New Hampshire

Special Teams

Return Specialist
Matt Szczur, Villanova

PK
Nick Yako, Villanova

P
David Miller, William & Mary

By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director


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