Now the Largest FCS Conference, CAA Football Prepares For an Even Deeper Title Race
There’s a different feeling across CAA Football heading into its 75th anniversary season this fall, and it’s not only because of what’s new to the league, but from what’s gone.
The CAA has become the largest FCS league, with newcomers Hampton and Monmouth lifting it to 13 members this season and North Carolina A&T on its way next year to make it 14. The race has long been a war of attrition, but the departure of James Madison to the FBS level will really make the team picked, say, sixth, seventh or eighth even more resemble the favorite in the conference’s preseason poll, an honor that was bestowed on Villanova on Thursday.
Villanova (10-3, 7-1) shared the CAA title with James Madison last season, defeating the Dukes in the head-to-head matchup. Not a lot of teams could claim that in recent years as the national power captured 42 of their final 45 regular-season conference games, adding three more wins over CAA brethren in the playoffs since 2015. JMU at least shared the conference title in six of its final seven CAA seasons (Maine won in 2018).
“The league is so tough week in and week out, year in and year out,” New Hampshire coach Rick Santos said during the CAA’s virtual media day. “Obviously, losing someone like that (JMU), it might open up for some other teams to potentially make a playoff run. For us, it’s all about how we can get better internally.”
In addition to the new membership with its head coaches (Monmouth’s Kevin Callahan and Hampton’s Robert Prunty) and players, there are new head coaches at existing members of the most interesting conference race. Santos guided UNH on an interim basis for six months in 2019 while Sean McDonnell was on medical leave, and now is running the program in which he starred in as a Walter Payton Award-winning quarterback. Ryan Carty has taken over at Delaware, his alma mater, where he was a member of the Blue Hens’ 2003 FCS title-winning squad – one of six national champions in league history. Maine also brought back alum Jordan Stevens to lead its rugged program.
Carty, who was the offensive coordinator on Sam Houston’s 2020 FCS championship squad, remembers, “The CAA was going to teach you how to play hard and teach you how to win tough games and close games. And if you did that, you had a chance to beat anybody in the playoffs.”
Said Callahan, whose program, like Hampton, arrived from the Big South: “If you look at the middle eight teams each and every year, they’re 4-4, they’re 5-3 or they’re 3-5. What that tells me is that there’s a high level of competition week to week, there’s a great deal of parity, people can beat up each other. One of the things that we have to understand is that we have to be able to have a lot of depth.”
As for more potential change in the future, CAA commissioner Joe D’Antonio said the conference will discuss having two seven-team divisions after N.C. A&T’s arrival. The CAA had divisional play in the 1993-98 and 2004-09 seasons – mostly as a 12-team conference – and a switch could decrease the unbalance in scheduling that usually hangs over a larger conference. It would ensure each CAA team would play the other six within the same division in addition to having two cross-over games over an eight-game conference schedule.
Nine of the 13 current head coaches have previously been a part of CAA divisional alignment either in their current position or as a player or an assistant coach.
“I think CAA Football, in looking at each team and our team, we’re all well-equipped to take this to the next level as a conference,” Stony Brook coach Chuck Priore said.
Delaware, which shared the CAA title with James Madison in the unique spring season last year before it slumped in the fall, was picked second to Villanova in the preseason poll, and edged the Wildcats for the most selections on the preseason team (not including honorable mentions) five to four.
Stony Brook running back Ty Son Lawton (CAA-high 1,088 rushing yards, 10 touchdowns in 2021) and William & Mary defensive lineman Nate Lynn (52 tackles, 12 sacks, FCS-high six forced fumbles) were selected as the conference’s preseason offensive and defensive players of the year, respectively.
Said Villanova coach Mark Ferrante: “When you look at these preseason rankings and you look at where things end up at postseason, this league always gets shaken up from top to bottom.”
CAA Preseason Poll
1. Villanova (2021: 10-3, 7-1 CAA), 270 points (16 first-place votes)
2. Delaware (5-6, 3-5 CAA), 235 (7)
3. Rhode Island (7-4, 4-4 CAA), 224
4. Richmond (6-5, 4-4 CAA), 219
5. William & Mary (6-5, 4-4 CAA), 206 (2)
6. Elon (6-5, 5-3 CAA), 191 (1)
7. Stony Brook (5-6, 4-4 CAA), 151
8. Maine (6-5, 4-4 CAA), 134
9. New Hampshire (3-8, 2-6 CAA), 117
10. Monmouth (7-4, 6-1 Big South), 105
11. Towson (4-7, 3-5 CAA), 81
12. UAlbany (2-9, 1-7 CAA), 64
13. Hampton (5-6, 3-4 Big South), 31
Preseason Offensive Player of the Year
Ty Son Lawton, RB, Stony Brook
Preseason Defensive Player of the Year
Nate Lynn, DL, William & Mary