By Sam Partridge
CSN CAA Today Columnist
College Sporting News
It's only been three weeks, but we can already see how teams are coming together and the strategy they're using to try to wage a successful campaign.
That being said, the start of the football year is a lot like the "silly season" of early campaign politics. The contests are largely non-competitive, stacked with BCS games or foes from lesser conferences. As a result, we're often forced to focus on the little things, rather than results of games that are rarely surprises. For example, CAA teams have played 30 games in the first three weeks and only 3(!) have been decided by less than 14 points. And, with all three of those games involving the same CAA team, that leaves us with 27 games that don't offer a lot of insight.
So, what have we learned? Frankly, not much. Or, to borrow from former coach Dennis Green, "They are who we thought they were." www.youtube.com/watch?v=SWmQbk5h86w
Before we get to this week's games, let's take a quick run through the conference. I'll give each team a playoff outlook, borrowing from political maps, but instead of using red state and blue state, we'll use green (going to the playoffs) and red (stopping at the end of the season).
Coming into the season, we knew that the Monarchs, led by super soph Taylor Heinicke were going to be an explosive team. We also knew that they were going to be motivated to take advantage of their last season in FCS and thereby last chance to make the playoffs. They can't win the outright CAA title and/or the automatic berth that goes with it, but they should still be in the unofficial title hunt this year.
Unfortunately, as we've seen from the Monarchs the last few years, they try not to schedule competitive non-conference games and this year's slate of Duquesne, Hampton and Campbell is pretty typical. 172 points and some phenomenal numbers from Heinicke are impressive, but we'll get our first real look at Old Dominion this Saturday when New Hampshire comes to town.
Playoff outlook - Solid Green (70% for/5% against/25% undecided)
The defending CAA champions came into the season with high expectations given the number of returning starters from last year's precocious bunch. The challenge was going to be the schedule, with two BCS foes and a tough FCS slate not leaving much margin for error. The convincing loss to Kent State raised some red flags, as did some of the struggles against William & Mary, but the Tigers still came away with a solid win to kick off the conference slate. The offense will need to clean up some of the mistakes that bothered coach Rob Ambrose, but Terance West is still a stud and Grant Enders a dangerous quarterback as this team still looks poised to make a solid run at defending their CAA title.
Playoff Outlook - Solid Green (70% for/15% against/15% undecided)
A playoff team returning a veteran QB, a solid running game and an strong defense which added the best recruiting class in the CAA. Dark horse candidate for the league title. After two games against outclassed opponents and a smackdown against West Virginia, we're still left with the same impression. If the Dukes can stay healthy this year, they should be a handful for anyone in the CAA.
Playoff Outlook - Lean Green (60% For/30% Against/10% Undecided)
This Wildcat team looks a lot like most squads that come out of Durham, with a twist. Lacking a clear favorite at quarterback, coach McDonnell has been leaning on the running game a bit more to take pressure off his young signal-callers. Slowing the game down and opening up opposing secondaries could pay dividends for the Wildcat offense and take pressure off a defense that usually finds itself overmatched physically. Still feels like a playoff team, but harder to gauge where the upside lies, or the downside. We'll learn a lot this week in Norfolk.
Playoff Outlook - Lean Green (55% For/25% Against/20% Undecided)
Don't look now, but the Blue Hens have a transfer at quarterback and a physical defense. Sounds a lot like most year's in Newark, doesn't it? Well, that's the hallmark of a consistent, winning program. Andrew Pierce continues to be a workhorse at running back, but a lot will hinge on the quality of the quarterback play. As with Old Dominion, Delaware hasn't exactly been tested by the likes of West Chester, Delaware State and Bucknell, but we'll quickly get a read on this crop of Blue Hens as they embark on road trips to Williamsburg, VA and Durham, NH the next two Saturdays.
Playoff Outlook - Lean Green (50% for/25% against/25% undecided)
The loss of senior quarterback Warren Smith and some defensive stalwarts left question marks in Orono but the Black Bear running game could still pose a lot of problems for opponents this year. Games against Boston College and Bryant don't give a lot of clarity to how Wasilewski will do under center, but coach Jack Cosgrove is one of the best at piecing together teams not necessarily loaded with talent. The stable of running backs will grind the clock and rely on a defense that should still be pretty stingy, but it's going to be a tough fight to get back to the playoffs for the boys from Orono.
Playoff Outlook - Tossup (40% For/40% Against/20% Undecided)
William & Mary
Quarterback play and special teams doomed the Tribe last year, so it was imperative that Jimmye Laycock find solutions to those problems this year. However, it doesn't appear that the Tribe has a savior signal-caller on the roster. It's unfortunate because the defense continues to be stellar. The Tribe could very easily be 3-0 right now with a handful of big plays, but unless Raphael Ortiz can quickly blossom, it's going to be another disappointing season in Williamsburg.
Playoff outlook - Lean Red (30% For/60% Against/10% Undecided)
With all the change that has gone on in Richmond in recent years, this looked to be another rebuilding project. The losses of quarterback Aaron Corp and receiver Tre Gray along with another coaching change figured to leave Richmond with a lot of questions to answer. However, the early results seem to be encouraging. Still, the schedule has been kind and the rest of the CAA won't be.
Playoff Outlook - Lean Red (25% For/50% Against/25% Undecided)
It was hard to imagine that Andy Talley would have consecutive disastrous years, so the expectation was that the young Wildcats would bounce back in 2012. The question was how big would the bounce be? Early indications are that it will be solid, but not enough to get back into CAA title contention and probably not a playoff berth. The glory days of '09-'10 are not returning, nor are the legends that helped create them, but this group of Wildcats could still make some noise in the league. Two early come-from-behind wins are confidence builders and Villanova won't be a pushover like last year. Still, Talley will have to endure another season of disappointment in 2012.
Playoff outlook - Lean Red (25% For/55% Against/20% Undecided)
It's difficult to imagine what the recruiting pitch was the last couple of years for this program. With football teams trying to move up all over the country, coach Trainer and his staff had to go out and sell kids on the idea of coming to a school that was deemphasizing its program. While I'm such the coaching staff was excited by the decision to ultimately remain in the league, there's a good chance that the Rams were put in a hole talent-wise by the expectation that they were headed to the NEC. The early results seem to bear that out, most glaringly in the convincing week 2 loss to Monmouth. There have been some bright spots of late in Kingston, especially some solid wins at home, but a drop in talent likely means a long year in the Ocean State, especially if the Rams can't do better than 8 points per game.
Playoff Outlook - Solid Red (95% against/5% undecided)
It's ironic that the two teams moving up to FBS are the bookends of the league but the early part of the season has really exposed just how unprepared Georgia State is for the transition. As opposed to Old Dominion which has already shown it can prosper at this level, the Panthers have shown little ability to compete at the FCS level, much less the Sun Belt. Given that the only coach in program history is stepping down at the end of the season, this is shaping up to be an extremely long year in Atlanta. Georgia State goes winless in the CAA.
Playoff Outlook - Bright Red (100% against)
MY CAA TODAY TOP 25
1 North Dakota State
2 Youngstown State
3 The Citadel
4 McNeese State
6 Eastern Washington
7 Northern Iowa
8 Old Dominion
9 James Madison
10 Cal Poly
11 Sam Houston State
12 Montana State
13 Illinois State
15 Georgia Southern
16 Stony Brook
19 New Hampshire
20 Appalachian State
22 Sacramento State
24 Indiana State 25 Albany
CAA PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
Offensive Player of the Week: Taylor Heinicke, QB, Old Dominion
Heinicke racked up 486 passing yards and seven touchdowns on a 21-of-29 performance against Campbell. The quarterback's passing yards were the 10th-highest total in CAA Football history, while his seven TD-passes were one shy from equaling the league mark last done in 2004.
Defensive Player of the Week: Cooper Taylor, DB, Richmond
Taylor helped the Spiders record their second-straight win by hauling in two interceptions, a 12-yarder and a 35-yarder which went for a touchdown, against VMI. The safety also tallied five tackles on the day as Richmond's defense limited the Keydets to just 197 total yards.
Rookie of the Week: John Robertson, QB, Villanova
Robertson, now a two-time Rookie of the Week honoree, accounted for 234 yards of total offense in helping Villanova earn its first league win of 2012. The freshman completed 14-of-27 passes for 171 yards and carried the ball 11 times for 63 yards and score.
Special Teams Player of the Week: Sean Baner, PK, Delaware
Baner was true on all four of his field goal attempts as well as a PAT in a victory over Bucknell. Baner's field-goal kicking performance, which equaled his own school record, included distances of 20, 21, 32 and a season-best 41 yards.
THIS WEEK'S GAMES
St. Francis (PA) at Towson
Coming off the win over William & Mary, the Tigers will play host to St. Francis (PA) in a non-conference game. The visit from the Red Flash will be a welcome breather in the week before the defending CAA champs head to Baton Rouge to take on LSU. It's hard to come up with a storyline that doesn't end in a convincing win for coach Rob Ambrose and his team, so let's not try.
Towson 41 "Lighten Up, Francis" 13
Richmond at Georgia State
The only thing interesting about Georgia State games is whether or not the road teams get into any trouble down near Atlanta. The "distractions" in the Buckhead and other locales are legendary and have tripped up many athletes in the past so maybe something worth talking about will happen. Short of that, I think a surprising Spiders team will emerge from the Georgia Dome with a victory.
Spiders 31 Panthers 13
James Madison at Rhode Island
If Rhode Island is going to have any success this season, it needs to start right here with a home game against a Dukes team coming off a pasting at the hands of West Virginia. It has been an ugly start for the Rams and although Meade Stadium was rough on visitors last year, I don't see Coach Trainer's squad having enough to pull off the upset against Mickey Matthews and his visiting Dukes.
James Madison 27 Rhode Island 13
Villanova at Pennsylvania
Villanova looks to continue their surprising start as they travel to Franklin Field to face the Quakers in a Big 5-style football matchup. Penn dominated Lafayette last week and outgained them by nearly 200 yards but were done in by an incredible 8 turnovers. Hard to expect the Quakers to be that generous two weeks so Villanova will need to control possession with its running game and play much better in the first than the last two weeks. The Wildcats are young and improving, but a focused Quakers team pulls out the victory in Philly.
Red and Blue 24 Feeling Blue 23
Albany at Maine
The Black Bears open their home schedule against the Great Danes in a preview of future CAA matchups. This is a statement game for Albany as they try to serve notice for what teams can expect when they join the CAA next season. Albany gave a really good Youngstown State team all they could handle on the road last week so we should learn quite a bit about Maine as they take on a quality FCS foe for the first time. I'm sure Jack Cosgrove is worried about this one up in Orono, and he should be. However, the Black Bears running game will wear down the visitors from New York and prove the difference.
"See You Next Year" 27 "We'll Be Ready" 23
GAME(S) OF THE WEEK
For those of you unfamiliar with the geography of southern Virginia, Williamsburg and Norfolk are a little less than an hour away from each other. Given that and the respective start times this Saturday, it's possible to catch both New Hampshire at Old Dominion and William & Mary at Delaware.
Delaware at William & Mary
Although W&M comes into the game with an 0-3 record, all three of its opponents have been better than any of Delaware's three non-conference foes, all of whom traveled to Newark to play the Blue Hens. As a result, it's hard to get a clear read on this one, especially since it's a classic rivalry game historically marked by close battles. The Tribe will come into this one hoping to get some payback for a humbling 21-0 defeat at Delaware last year that hinted strongly at the struggles the Tribe would face the rest of the season.
It's not exactly groundbreaking to say that Raphael Ortiz will be the key to this game. Both teams are solid defensively and like to run the ball, so the clock should keep moving and the game will be relatively low-scoring. As a result, it should end up a lot like all three of the College's games this season, a one-score affair in the fourth quarter. This time, the Tribe rides the home crowd and a little desperation to a mild upset in the friendly confines of Zable Stadium.
William & Mary 23 Delaware 20
New Hampshire at Old Dominion
This is one of those games that I wish Las Vegas covered because it would be fun to see where the oddsmakers would set the over/under. The home crowd will be decked out in blue for ODU's home opener and it should be a good one as New Hampshire comes to Norfolk on Saturday afternoon. While the Wildcats have some new pieces this year, Coach McDonnell brings his usually dangerous attack south to take on the Monarchs. The two big questions are how Andy Vallas will handle his first big CAA road game and the tough crowd at Ballard Stadium and whether or not the New Hampshire defense can have some luck slowing down the Monarch offensive juggernaut led by Taylor Heinicke. The New Hampshire running game has been effective so far this year, but I imagine the ODU defense will be focused on stopping it and trying to force the sophomore Vallas to beat them through the air. In the end, I think the Monarchs have a little more on both sides of the ball than the Wildcats and will defend their home field convincingly.
Old Dominion 37 New Hampshire 23
As usual, please feel free to offer any suggestions, scouting reports, thoughts, queries, etc. to CAAtoday@yahoo.com.