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CAA teams set for one-game seasons

By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - NCAA brackets have to wait until March around Delaware's athletic department. Football coach K.C. Keeler doesn't want to see any at this time of the year.

One-game seasons, week after week. That's the only focus.

The concept isn't new; many coaches talk about it.

Getting players to truly buy into it, now that's another story. But CAA Football coaches have great success with their messages.

With only 20 teams in the FCS playoffs - and now 16 after Saturday's first round knocked out four teams - players can already see the finish line on the horizon. That's why it's so important for coaches to keep the focus on the task at hand.

Jumping to the FBS this weekend reinforces how a championship dream can dissipate so quickly. With no playoff system to decide the national champion, fans and people within the Boise State program woke up Friday morning envisioning an Auburn loss to Alabama as their ticket to the Promised Land. And when Auburn trailed 24-0 that afternoon, they were probably checking into flights to Glendale, Ariz. And then it all changed so quickly, with Auburn storming back to stun Alabama and Boise State losing to Nevada by the time the day was over.

Poof.

Stay in the moment. Don't get sidetracked.

Any loss at this point of the season, K.C. Keeler points out, and the coaching staff will be collecting the equipment.
"We talked about this three weeks ago in our bye," Keeler said. "We said when this thing's all done, that season's behind us, it's a brand new season. And the thing that I've done a pretty good job with (during) my career is having our kids understand that you can't have an oops in the playoffs. We're not in a tournament, we are not in a tournament. Our kids don't look at it like we're in a tournament. We look at it like we're playing one game."

We've come to expect CAA dominance in the playoffs, but the parity across the FCS this season will test the CAA's four qualifiers in what now is again a Sweet 16. Co-champions Delaware and William Mary, defending FCS champion Villanova and New Hampshire, whose seven straight playoff appearances are the FCS high, all rightfully earned first-round byes to next Saturday's second round. Each is talented enough for a deep run.

The CAA was represented in the national championship game in six of the last seven seasons, by five schools that won four national titles - Delaware in 2003, James Madison in '04, Richmond in '08 and Villanova last year. CAA teams were a superb 40-21 (.656) during that period.

"As long as we leave everything on the field, I could live with whatever happens," says Villanova coach Andy Talley, whose team had to win at then-No. 1 Delaware last weekend to earn a spot in the playoffs.

The brutal realities of week-to-week action within the CAA schedule prepares its players for the playoffs. William & Mary coach Jimmye Laycock says he doesn't want his players to play the "what-if" game - either looking back or looking beyond the next opponent.

The Tribe simply controlled what it could a week ago by rolling past Richmond in their regular-season finale. Wouldn't you know, with Delaware also losing to Villanova, the Tribe earned the CAA's automatic bid to the playoffs and gained the No. 2 seed, with the possibility of three home playoff games leading up to championship game on Jan. 7 in Frisco, Texas.

New Hampshire went into playoff-mode early, facing a dire situation in October. The Wildcats' 2-3 start suggested their run of playoff appearances would end. The Wildcats won five of their final six regular-season games.

"It was a total team effort down the stretch here in what was a different guy each week in a lot of ways," coach Sean McDonnell said. "I thought (wide receiver) Terrance Fox had a fantastic week one game. (Running back) Dontra Peters. (Quarterback) R.J. Toman has been consistent. Defensively, (linebacker Matt) Evans has played very, very well for us, with (defensive end) Brian McNally and (defensive tackle) Steve Young up front. And then (Safety Hugo) Souza has played consistent. It's been a good run these last six weeks, a lot of different guys playing. They've all risen up. And they had to because it was a tough situation, being 2-3 and knowing what the consequences were if you lost another game and lost two games."

Any loss at this point of the season, Keeler points out, and the coaching staff will be collecting the equipment. CAA players get the concept and keep their focus on only one game.

DEE-FENSE! DEE-FENSE!

Saturday's four first-round games had two tight games won by the road teams - Lehigh over Northern Iowa, 14-7, and Western Illinois over Coastal Carolina, 17-10 - and two games won decisively by the home teams - Georgia Southern routed South Carolina State, 41-16, and North Dakota State pulled away from Robert Morris, 43-17.

The common thread between the winners was excellent defense. The four teams moving on allowed a combined four offensive touchdowns and each forced at least three turnovers, with Western Illinois tormenting Coastal Carolina for five turnovers, including Kieron James' interception of quarterback Zach MacDowall at the goal line in the closing seconds of the Leathernecks' win.

Defenses often wear down in November and skills position players can put up ridiculous, record-setting numbers. So it was refreshing to see the winning defenses so locked in on Saturday.

Ten of the FCS' top 12 teams in scoring defense during the regular season made the playoffs (Penn, whose Ivy League does not participate in the playoffs, and James Madison were the others), so first-round bye could help some defenses get healthier.

Plus there are key injuries among starting quarterbacks. Bethune-Cookman, which hosts New Hampshire in the second round next Saturday, lists senior Matt Johnson as a game-time decision after he suffered a severe separation of his non-throwing shoulder in a Nov. 20 loss to Florida A&M. Georgia Southern junior Jaybo Shaw suffered a concussion in the first quarter against South Carolina State and did not return to the game.

TOP PERFORMANCES

The Sports Network/Fathead.com FCS National Players of the Week are for the regular season, so how about some unofficial award winners for Saturday's four games:

Offensive Player of the Week: If you like symmetry, North Dakota State running back D.J. McNorton rushed for 110 yards and a touchdown and had 110 receiving yards and a touchdown. Robert Morris had no answer for the dynamic junior.

Defensive Player of the Week: Big games are made for big-time players and Western Illinois senior linebacker Kyle Glazier collected 17 tackles, including one for a loss, in Western Illinois' win at Coastal Carolina. The Leathernecks defense allowed only a field goal.

Special Teams Player of the Week: We'll share the pick. Georgia Southern's Adrian Mora kicked three field goals in the Eagles' rout of South Carolina State. Lehigh's Alex Smith kicked four punts inside Northern Iowa's 20 in the Mountain Hawks' win.

JUST THE PICKS

Too much turkey caught up with us during a .500 weekend of selecting FCS games.

This Weekend's Record: 3-3 (.500)

Season Record: 581-179 (.764)

Next Weekend's Games

Second Round - Saturday, Dec. 4

All Times ET

X-projected winner

Western Illinois (8-4) at X-No. 1 seed Appalachian State (9-2), noon

Lehigh (10-2) at X-No. 3 seed Delaware (9-2), noon

Wofford (9-2) at X-Jacksonville State (9-2), noon

X-New Hampshire (7-4) at Bethune-Cookman (10-1), 1 p.m.

Georgia Southern (8-4) at X-No. 2 seed William & Mary (8-3), 1:30 p.m.

North Dakota State (8-4) at X-No. 4 seed Montana State (9-2), 2 p.m.

X-Villanova (7-4) at Stephen F. Austin (9-2), 3:30 p.m.

Southeast Missouri State (9-2) at X-No. 5 seed Eastern Washington (9-2), 4:05 p.m.

Sacks or scores, contact Craig Haley at
chaley@sportsnetwork.com.


Follow Craig Haley on Twitter and Facebook.

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