By Sam Partridge
CAA Today Columnist
College Sporting News
By this time in a football season, you normally have a feel for a team, how it's coming together and whether the breaks of the game seem to be going their way or not (Richmond). We've all seen it when for some reason the mix just doesn't seem to be right (W&M) or the ball always seems to be bouncing the wrong way (URI).
My Week 6 Top 25:
1: North Dakota State Bison
2: Montana State Bobcats
3: Northern Iowa Panthers
4: Wofford Terriers
5: Georgia Southern Eagles
6: New Hampshire Wildcats
7: Montana Grizzlies
8: Towson Tigers
9: Maine Black Bears
10: James Madison Dukes
11: Lehigh Mountain Hawks
12: Delaware Fightin' Blue Hens
13: Appalachian State Mountaineers
14: Sam Houston State Bearkats
15: Old Dominion Monarchs
16: Indiana State Sycamores
17: Jacksonville State Gamecocks
18: Liberty Flames
19: Norfolk State Spartans
20: Richmond Spiders
21: Eastern Washington Eagles
22: Portland State Vikings
23: Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles
24: William & Mary Tribe
25: Harvard Crimson
I've still got 8 CAA teams in the top 25, but I don't expect the Tribe to be there much longer and the Spiders will join them outside the top 25 if they don't get things straightened out. Maine jumped up into the top 10 after beating JMU and Old Dominion keeps climbing. There's still a shot at getting 6 teams into the playoff field and I think 4 is certain and 5 is likely.
Andy Talley is one of the most forthcoming coaches on the CAA weekly call and he has been very open about the struggles that his team has gone through this year. The losses of team leaders Matt Szczur and Chris Whitney left the coach with an extremely inexperienced team and a lack of leadership. The loss of Justin Thomas at QB left the team essentially without a big-time playmaker and their opponents have taken advantage of this. The results are clear, in the eight primary offensive and defensive categories, the Wildcats rank no better than 9th in any of them and either last or next-to-last in most. There are not a lot of points to belabor here. Talley himself has said that the rest of the season is dedicated to continuing to give his young players experience and coach them on details, execution and the right things to do to win football games.
Remaining Schedule: @ JMU, Old Dominion, Maine, @ UMass, Delaware (at Chester, PA)
Thoughts: Hard to get the ship righted against that remaining slate, but Andy Talley will keep coaching and working his young team so that they are prepared to be competitive next season.
Projection: Iíd like to say they can find one more win, but I think 1-10 is likely.
For a team expected to surprise some people this year, it simply has not happened. Coach Trainer is extremely frustrated with the turnovers and the inability of his team to stay competitive. Itís easy to point to where the season effectively turned, in the CAA opener against UMass, when Steve Probst had the Rams driving for a 4th quarter lead when he threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown. The Rams seemingly have not recovered since then and have made critical mistakes in losses to Brown and most recently, at home to Old Dominion. Expected to be a strength of the team, the passing game has really been hurting the Rams, as theyíre completing only 54% of passes while throwing 9 picks against only 8 TDs. That kind of performance simply is not going to win many games in the CAA and Coach Trainer needs to find a way to improve both passing efficiency and ball security to find success the rest of the way. For a team thatís 3rd in the league running the ball with better than 180 yards/game, the turnovers through the air are killers.
The Rhode Island defense actually hasnít been too bad statistically, but when a team is minus 7 in turnovers through only five games, itís tough to win games. Thereís hope in Kingston if the team can clean things up and take care of the ball, but itís tough to sort things out on the fly in this league.
Remaining Schedule: @ Maine, Delaware, @ UNH, W&M, @ JMU, Towson
The remaining schedule is a tough gauntlet for any team, but even more so for one thatís struggling.
Projection: 2-9. Tough way to go out in the CAA, but the move to the NEC should offer more success for the Rams.
Iím not going to spend much time on the Minutemen since theyíre not eligible for a conference title and theyíll be gone next year, but they can still have an impact the rest of the way. Currently sitting at 3-2, 1-1 in the CAA, itís been a relatively unremarkable year for UMass. If they had managed to get a win on the road at ODU, they could have really made things interesting, but they will look to be a spoiler from here on out. Long story short, UMass is a balanced offensive team behind Pagel and Hernandez, but the Minutemen are being held back by a woeful 3rd down conversion percentage of 34.7% that ranks them last in the CAA. On the other side of the field, their 10th ranked pass rush has allowed their secondary to be riddled in the passing game to the tune of 14 TDs. These defensive struggles were most evident in the Old Dominion game, where the Monarchs went on two different scoring runs that the Minutemen couldnít put a stop to. The CAA is not a great passing league this year with plenty of teams having question marks at QB, but UMass will continue to struggle if they canít rush the passer.
Remaining Schedule: @ Delaware, UNH, @ Richmond, Villanova, @ Maine, JMU
While UMass wonít be in the CAA title mix, they can still have an impact on the title chase when they go head-to-head with the teams at the top. Pagel and Hernandez are enough to give most teams a pretty good fight, but I donít think that will translate to more than two or three wins the rest of the way.
Projection: Minutemen leave the CAA with a sub-.500 finish at 5-6.
Dead Men Walking
William & Mary
Most fans of the Tribe will tell you that the VMI game is effectively a bellweather gauge for how good the season will be If the 24-7 win over the Keydets was a red flag, then the 13-10 nailbiter against New Haven was a screaming siren warning. Truth be told, without a goal line interception in that game and another inside the 10 yard line against Villanova, the Tribe would be 1-5 against a weak schedule. When you take a close look at the statistics, itís actually hard to figure out how the Tribe has won three games. It still amazes me that a Jimmy Laycock team is last in scoring offense, last in total offense and ninth in passing offense. Jonathan Grimes is still arguably the best all-around running back in the CAA, but he can only do so much, especially when teams donít have to respect the passing game.
The passing game was expected to be a strength as usual but Mike Paulus has clearly not regained his arm strength after last yearís surgery and Brent Caprio struggled in relief as well. Mike Graham seemed to be making strides but has been sidelined with an undisclosed injury. When a coach is talking about giving his 4th quarterback a look, itís going to be a tough year.
The Tribeís defense has been statistically respectable but the run defense has really struggle in games against Delaware and JMU. Without being able to force teams into manageable 3rd downs, the teams accomplished secondary is marginalized. Having watched this team the last two weeks, it just looks like one of those years where things just donít come together. It all starts with the disappointing offense, but a questionable run defense and an inconsistent kicking game add up to an underachieving year for a team projected by many to be in the top 5 of FCS.
Remaining Schedule: UNH, Towson, @ URI, ODU, @ Richmond
Tribe has a favorable schedule the rest of the way with the three toughest opponents all at home, but this team has shown little of the form necessary to actually beat those teams. Without a more productive offense, they simply canít score enough to keep up with the top teams in the league.
Projection: Hard to believe, but I think William & Mary ends up under .500 at 5-6.
So youíre telling me thereís a chance
When Richmond surrendered a bunch of points late in week 3 against VMI, it just seemed like a letdown for a team with a big lead. However, given the performance of the defense since then, it appears to have been a sign of things to come. In losses to UNH, JMU and Towson, the Spiders have given up over 100 points and have not been able to get off the field when needed. When your QB has a historically efficient game and you still canít win, there are problems on the defensive side of the ball.
That being said, and despite an 0-3 CAA start, this team still has a chance to make a playoff run.
Remaining Schedule: Maine, UMass, @ ODU, @ Delaware, W&M
Richmond was not done any favors by the schedule this year, missing URI and Villanova. Iíd like to say they can still make a run at a playoff spot, but the 0-3 hole is a little too deep. That being said, if they can get past Maine, they still have winnable games against UMass and W&M. That would leave them needing one win on the road to finish at 7-4 with a BCS win in their back pocket. Is it likely, no? But itís possible.
Projection: Spiders fall short at 6-5.
New Kids on the BloC(AA)
Bobby Wilder and the Monarchs have burst on the CAA scene in their first year and now find themselves moving up in the rankings after last weekís first conference road win at URI. This team has shown itself to be physical on both sides of the both and might only be lacking in seasoning. The emergence of Taylor Heinecke filling in for the injured Thomas DeMarco gives the Monarchs two dangerous quarterbacks with different strengths that will pose problems for defenses already facing a strong ODU running game. The team is 4th in the CAA in both passing and rushing offense and 3rd overall.
On the defensive side, the Monarchs are physical up front and ballhawking everywhere. One of only two teams holding opposing offense to under 100 yards rushing, the Monarchs have forced 15 turnovers
Remaining Schedule: Towson, @ Villanova, JMU, Richmond, @ W&M
One the easiest remaining schedules of any CAA contender. Two winnable road games, another home game against a struggling Spider team and two home games against Towson and JMU. I think ODU is a lock for the playoffs if they can get three wins. Even better, if they can hold serve at home against Towson this week, I think they can make a run at the CAA title. Not a bad possibility for the Monarchs first year in the CAA.
Projection: Not quite able to run the table, but a 9-2 finish leaves the Monarchs with a round 2 home game at Fitton Field.
Simply given the history of the program, the first half has been a rousing success for the Tigers. Coach Rob Ambrose has brought the school to respectability and they are positioned for a run at their first playoff berth. This is one of the more balanced teams in the league and they are getting contributions in all three phases of the game. The only blemish on the schedule is a loss at Maryland, but the Tigers played a solid game in College Park and were a couple of mistakes away from having a chance at the upset.
The stat that stands out most to me about this team is their league-leading third down conversion rate. To date, the Tigers have converted over 58 percent of the time, which is an almost unimaginable rate. It's so good, that there's no way they can maintain it, which is one of the reasons to wonder how much of an upside this team still has. There is still very little experience on this team in terms of winning ballgames and it will only get tougher as they face some CAA road games will a possible playoff berth on the line. This is a balanced team with a solid quarterback and a good coach, but with expectations raised, it will be interesting to see how the Tigers fare from here on out.
Remaining Schedule: @ ODU, @ W&M, Delaware, @ Maine, UNH, @ Rhode Island
I have been on the Tigers bandwagon since the win at home against Villanova, but now itís time for Towson to show whether they can play with the big boys as they leave the state of Maryland for the first time this weekend. It feels fitting that theyíre playing Old Dominion to show which of these surprise teams is ready to make a run for the CAA title. Towson has a couple of winnable road games at W&M and URI, but they will probably need to find another win or two to make a case for a playoff berth.
Projection: 7-4 and firmly on the bubble come selection time.
You look familiar, have we met?
Mickey Matthews described Jack Cosgrove as a riverboat gambler this week and he certainly proved that with his decision to go for two and the win last week at JMU.Not only did the coach decide to go for two, but he ran it with the backup quarterback out if the muddle huddle. The rest, as they say, is history. And it was also the #2 highlight on ESPN:
As for the team itself, Maine is proving to be a dangerous, resourceful group and with wins over Delaware and JMU to start the conference slate, they have positioned themselves well for the rest of the reason. The combination of the athletic Warren Smith at quarterback and the emergent Pushaun Brown at running back are proving to be a handful for opponents. Maine has managed to avoid significant injuries at this point, which is critical for a team that has always battled issues with depth.
The Maine defense is a little bit of an unknown, but they forced four interceptions against Delaware and made enough plays at JMU to get wins. Given the quality of the offense, if the Black Bears D can perform in the second half of the season, the boys from Orono have enough to make a run at a CAA title. This is clearly the best Maine team in a decade and has the chance to bring something special to the north woods come December, i.e. a home playoff game.
Remaining Schedule: URI, @ Richmond, @ Villanova, Towson, UMass, @ UNH
After winning a classic at JMU last week, the Black Bears have a pretty favorable schedule in front of them. It will be critical for Jack Cosgroveís group not to look ahead, but the final week at New Hampshire is looming as a possible CAA title match.
Projection: 8-3 with a bye but most likely a road game in week 2 of the playoffs.
The Usual Suspects
I canít quite get a read on how good this team is, and I donít think KC Keeler can either. As he mentioned in the coaches call last week, Delawareís three trips to the FCS title game were led by three all-american caliber QBs, John Hall, Joe Flacco and Pat Devlin. Tim Donnelly is not at that level at this point, but this should still be a playoff team and anything can happen from there.
In reality, this is a team that isnít great at anything but is pretty good at most everything. While it will rarely be flashy, so far it has produced an offense that leads the league in 1st downs and is second in 3rd down conversions. Andrew Pierce is a workhorse back and the receiving crew led by Nihja White gives Donnelly options to throw to. They want to keep it on the ground and wear defenses down. The question for this squad is if they get in a shootout, can Donnelly execute well enough to pull out a win. The Blue Hens failed that test at Maine, but it will be interesting to see how they do when tested the rest of the season.
Remaining Schedule: UMass, @ URI, @ Towson, Richmond, Villanova
Avoiding ODU and UNH have left the Blue Hens with a very favorable schedule the rest of the way. The road game at Towson should be a good one, but I find it hard to believe that the Blue Hens lose more than one game.
Projection: 8-3 with the usual home game in Newark.
The Dukes have a tremendous running game and a dominant defensive line. When clicking, they can dominate games, as they did against W&M and especially Richmond. However, they also have an untested quarterback and a questionable secondary. On the CAA conference call this week, it was clear that coach Matthews is concerned about both. So far this season, the Dukes are throwing the ball for just 90 yards a game, and with Jace Edwards now at quarterback, it's unlikely that they will try to expand those numbers much. However, with teams doing everything they can to force JMU to throw, the teams' success will most likely be determined by whether he can make enough plays to keep defenses honest.
On the flip side, the Dukes defensive line is fearsome and will give many teams, like Villanova, absolutely fits, but teams with good offensive lines that can give their quarterback time, will be able to find some holes in the secondary. That unit has already seen breakdowns this year, both in tackling and in holding assignments, so that is an area of concern against teams like ODU and UNH. Prior to the suspension of their starting QB, I thought the Dukes were the clear favorite for the CAA crown, but they will have to work hard to stay in the running at this point.
Remaining Schedule: Villanova, @ ODU, @ UNH, URI, @ UMass
The Dukes get a breather at home against the Wildcats before the decisive road trip of the season at ODU and UNH. Iíve just got a feeling that the lack of experience at QB is going to hurt JMU down the stretch.
Projection: 7-4 and on the bubble with Towson.
I said it a couple of weeks ago, it's no surprise that UNH can score, and this is proving to be another prolific offense up in Durham. Averaging over 40 points a game to lead the CAA, they put a ton of pressure on opponents just trying to keep up. Kevin Decker is having a superb season and he has a stable or wide receivers to throw to. The running game has shown some signs, but is still not tremendously effective, which is probably the only thing opposing thing opposing coaches can be thankful for. If they can get some production on the ground, the team will be even tougher to stop.
The defensive side of the ball is a different story, as the Wildcats continue to have some difficulty, especially in terms of getting pressure on the quarterback, which leaves their dubious secondary exposed. As with most UNH teams, it's the execution of the defense that will ultimately determined how far this team can go. They have enough talent on offense to win a CAA title, but to finally make a deep run in the FCS playoffs, they will need their defense to force some turnovers. Hopefully, coach McDonnell can find a way to finally get a team to the semifinals and beyond.
Remaining Schedule: @ W&M, UMass, URI, JMU @ Towson, Maine
UNH misses Delaware and ODU this year and should take advantage of the next three games to move to 7-1. The last three will likely decide the CAA title and the cozy confines of Cowell Stadium should give the Wildcats and edge in the key games with JMU and Maine.
Projection: 9-2 and CAA champion with a second-round home game.
THIS WEEK'S GAMES (Richmond has a bye)
Villanova at JMU
On the coaches call this week, Mickey Matthews sounded excited to welcome the Wildcats to Harrisonburg this week. Villanova has had pretty good success recently against the Dukes and I think theyíre salivating over the idea of some payback against a struggling Wildcat team. Andy Talley was disappointed with the performance against UNH last week but also resigned to the fact that he simply doesnít have enough playmakers to compete. Look for JMUís defensive front to overwhelm an inexperienced and small Villanova offensive line. Itíll be an achy busride back to the Philly suburbs.
Dukes 34 Wildcats 9
Rhode Island at Maine
After a physical, thrilling win at JMU last week, it would be understandable if the Black Bears had a hard time maintaining focus this week. Fortunately, the schedule makers have given them a favorable matchup with a struggling Rhode Island team. The Bears have shown themselves to be an opportunistic defense and, although I wouldnít be surprised by a slow start, I expect Maine to force a couple of turnovers and wear down the Rams in the home confines of Orono. In the final matchup of former Yankee Conference foes, Warren Smith and Pushaun Brown will carry Maine to victory.
Black Bears 31 Rhody 19
New Hampshire at William & Mary
One of the more amazing notes about this game is that Sean McDonnell has never beaten William & Mary in his tenure New Hampshire. Given the quality of the teams over his reign in Durham, this is hard to believe, but the Tribe have managed to pull out a succession of narrow wins over the years. Jimmye Laycock will try to accomplish something similar this year with his offensively challenged group, but he doesnít even know who his starting QB is. In a normal year, the Tribe would be able to take advantage of a suspect Wildcat secondary, but this W&M offense does not seem capable of doing that, which will put a lot of pressure on the defense. Even though the secondary is a strength in Williamsburg, I think Decker and his stable of receivers will put more points on the board than the Tribe can keep up with. Sean McDonnell gets his first win in the rivalry as the Tribeís struggles continue.
Wildcats 31 Tribe 16
UMass at Delaware
One of the more entertaining CAA rivalries comes to an end as the Minutemen make their final trip to Newark as conference foes. Delaware got back to basics against W&M and will look for more of the same against a UMass defense that has struggled to get off the field at times. Look for a steady diet of Pierce and enough from Donnelly and to put the Blue Hens over the top.
Delaware 31 UMass 23
GAME OF THE WEEK
Towson at Old Dominion
Didnít we all expect this to be the biggest game of week 7? Well, no, but these teams have shown themselves to be balanced, well-coached and capable of making a run at the CAA title. Towson has more questions to answer, however, as they have not ventured outside the state of Maryland yet. Still, the win over Richmond showed a level of toughness not seen before from Towson. But this is not an easy task for a first CAA road game either, as the atmosphere at Fitton Field will be both hostile and electric. In a game that should have plenty of big plays and plenty of points, I think the home field makes the difference for the Monarchs.
ODU 34 Towson 27