By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
It sounds almost sacrilegious to say CAA Football is not the best conference in the FCS.
The so-called SEC of the FCS has become the pre-eminent power, with one of its teams reaching the national championship game in seven of the past eight seasons, including title winners in Delaware (2003), James Madison (2004), Richmond (2008) and Villanova (2009).
Delaware made it to the championship game last season for the third time in those eight years, losing a 19-point second-half lead in a crushing, 20-19 loss to Eastern Washington.
This year, it's evident the gap is closing on the CAA.
As so often happens, a dominant team or league forces the competition to play to a higher level, and it's happening with the CAA, which also lost a lot of standout players to graduation and, eventually, NFL camps.
The Southern Conference may boast the best trio of teams in Appalachian State, Georgia Southern and Wofford, and the Big Sky Conference is home to the reigning national champion, Eastern Washington, and a Montana State team that is not far behind.
But when you start to make a case that the CAA isn't the best FCS conference, you can't. About seven of the 11 CAA teams warrant Top 25 consideration heading into the season, so the conference's depth is enough to keep it on top.
Following is a conference-by-conference ranking across the FCS:
1. CAA Football - Old Dominion would seem to be entering the conference at the right time - perhaps it's a down year? - but the reality is, there are few breathers in the CAA schedule in any season. William & Mary is back to being a national title contender after what it hopes was a hiccup in last year's playoffs, when they lost their first game at home as the No. 2 seed. Delaware suffered some big-time seniors, but it still has head coach K.C. Keeler, and that means a lot. Either Richmond, New Hampshire or Massachusetts (ineligible for the conference title or FCS playoffs as it gets set to move to the FBS next year) will likely give the conference a third outstanding team, and retooling Villanova, which probably lost the nation's best senior class, and an improved James Madison, with returning quarterback Justin Thorpe, will cause a lot of headaches and perhaps make the playoffs. Yes, it's foolish to doubt this conference.
Richmond hopes for a big senior season out of former Southern California quarterback Aaron Corp.
2. Southern Conference - It's demolition derby at the top of the SoCon. The schedule favors Wofford, which gets to host both Appalachian State and Georgia Southern, while Georgia Southern will be visiting both of its top two foes. There's no shortage of star power with that trio of teams, including ASU quarterback DeAndre Presley, GSU nose tackle Brent Russell and Wofford fullback Eric Breitenstein and defensive end Ameet Pall. The middle and bottom tiers of the nine-team conference don't seem as strong as the CAA.
3. Big Sky Conference - Eastern Washington's September schedule looks daunting, until you look at Montana's opening slate. And that's where you wonder if a team can rise up to the level of the defending national champion Eagles and Montana State. This high-scoring, star-studded conference has had a national championship game qualifier in each of the last three seasons, but Montana, which was the runner-up in 2008 and '09, seems to have lost its footing within the conference, let alone nationally. So it seems coach Beau Baldwin's experienced Eagles squad and Montana State, which features redshirt quarterback DeNarius McGhee, are on a higher level again.
4. Missouri Valley Football Conference - The other definitive power has a lot to prove this season. Its defending champion, Northern Iowa, bowed out of the first round of last year's playoffs at home against Patriot League champion Lehigh. There was great balance in the conference last season and this season could be similar. North Dakota State is hoping to build on last season's excellent playoff run and could be a Top 10 team. Southern Illinois, Western Illinois, Indiana State and Illinois State also are part of the deep conference.
5. Southland Conference - Speaking of deep conferences, most of the eight teams - two-time defending champion Stephen F. Austin, McNeese State, Central Arkansas, Northwestern State and Sam Houston State - have legitimate title aspirations. SFA has to prove it can overcome the loss of 2010 Walter Payton Award (sponsored by Fathead.com) winner Jeremy Moses at quarterback, and it just may. The balance resembles what the MVFC became last season.
6. Ohio Valley Conference - Jacksonville State, with its significant returning talent and incoming transfers, could sneak into the national title picture. The problem with that concept is that OVC teams have not won a playoff game since 2000. The Gamecocks should change that this year. The rest of the conference, including Eastern Kentucky, Southeast Missouri State and Murray State, is good, not great.
Quarterback Brad Sorensen leads defending Great West champion Southern Utah.
7. Great West Conference - The conference's final season will feature offensive standouts, such as Southern Utah quarterback Brad Sorensen, Cal Poly slotback Mark Rodgers and South Dakota tackle Tom Campton, but it doesn't seem to have a standout team. Expect another balanced race for a conference whose five teams will move on to the respected Big Sky and Missouri Valley conferences next year.
8. Ivy League - This should be an especially good season for the Ancient Eight, with each team returning a veteran quarterback. Penn is seeking the league's first title three-peat since Dartmouth from 1990-92, but Brown, Harvard, Yale and Dartmouth will make noise in the race. To rank the Ivies this high says a lot because the league doesn't offer athletic scholarships.
9. Big South Conference - If the Liberty-Stony Brook season finale doesn't decide the conference's automatic playoff bid, it would be surprising. Both teams will be tested out of conference before taking on their rivals. A year ago, Liberty and Gardner-Webb beat FBS opponents - a great sign for the conference. The bottom teams (VMI, Presbyterian and Charleston Southern) need to raise their play.
10. Patriot League - Lehigh rolled through the league last season and should win the title again, but the teams behind it should be improved as a whole. Colgate and Holy Cross are the challengers to Lehigh. Fordham remains ineligible for the league title as it continues to increase its scholarship limit. The Rams play a particularly tough non-conference schedule - road games at Connecticut, Rhode Island, Penn and Army - so that figures to hold them back.
11. Northeast Conference - Robert Morris handed Liberty a loss last season and earned the conference's first-ever automatic playoff bid. Graduation losses have brought the Colonials back to the pack, and it's a crowded field with the likes of Central Connecticut State, Albany, Duquesne and Monmouth hoping to contend for the title. The NEC will get a boost when Rhode Island comes aboard in 2013.
12. FCS Independents - The talent among the four programs may not show up record-wise. Georgia State and South Alabama, in their second seasons, are playing tougher schedules. Texas State and first-year program UTSA are playing a good mix of Southland Conference opponents before moving to the WAC next year. South Alabama and Texas State both play two FBS programs in September.
South Alabama running back Kendall Houston is coming off a banner freshman season.
13. Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference - Last year, the MEAC had some strong teams at the top and some poor ones at the bottom. The influx of five new head coaches will make the 11-team conference more competitive. Bethune-Cookman and South Carolina State both made the playoffs last season, but don't appear as strong this season. It seems like this conference is on the rise, however.
14. Southwestern Athletic Conference - At least SWAC teams will soon be back on the field following the conference's troubled offseason of head coaching departures and NCAA sanctions. Jackson State has the best quarterback in Casey Theriault, but the Tigers aren't eligible for the conference championship game. Defending champion Texas Southern remains the team to beat, although Grambling State is energized by the return of Doug Williams as head coach.
15. Pioneer Football League - That Jacksonville and Dayton both went 10-1 and were nationally ranked last season was big news for the non-scholarship PFL, but the league remained shut out from ever having an FCS playoff qualifier. Jacksonville should have a powerful team again, but the bottom programs such as Campbell, Marist, Davidson and Valparaiso, which is on an FCS-high 20-game losing streak, is keeping the league from raising its stature.