1. Towson (11-1)
The Tigers were the victim of a brutal schedule in 2012. Towson somehow got stuck playing two FBS games, including one against LSU. Rob Ambrose’s team went 7-2 against FCS competition, but was stuck on the outside looking in at the 20-team postseason field. The schedule-makers have been much kinder to the Tigers in 2012. Towson plays only one FBS game (at Connecticut) which is actually winnable, and gets all of the other CAA-title contenders (Villanova, New Hampshire and James Madison) to come to Johnny Unitas Stadium. Add to that favorable slate a deep stable of returning talent, and you can easily see why so many are so high on the Tigers. Junior running back Terrance West was named the CAA’s preseason Offensive Player of the Year, while the offensive line is anchored by 6-foot-5, 300-pound senior Erik Pike. On defense, Towson owns the best secondary in the league, featuring corners Tye Smith and Jordan Love. This could be a national championship-caliber team.
2. Villanova (9-2)
The Wildcats bring back quarterback John Robertson, who led Villanova to a CAA championship as a freshman a season ago. It was a remarkable bounce back season for Andy Talley’s team, which endured a 2-9 campaign in 2011. The biggest difference was the quarterback, who tortured the league with his dual-threat ability. Robertson rushed for more than a thousand yards and came just 35 yards shy of passing for better than 2,000. The scary thing is; Robertson is only likely to improve with another season learning the Nova system under his belt. He will also be aided by running back Kevin Monangai, who eclipsed 1,200 yards on the ground and scored 11 times in 2012. Tally’s team knows how to win and brings back 16 total starters. These Cats have all the ingredients to not just defend their CAA crown, but to also make a deep run in the FCS postseason. The biggest impediment could be the schedule. Nova has road games at BC, Towson, New Hampshire and James Madison. It will likely take wins in three of those four contests to hold off the Tigers for a second-straight CAA title.
3. New Hampshire (8-3)
There is no more underrated coach in the CAA than Sean McDonnel. All the man does is churn out winners. He has not had a great deal of playoff success, but no team in the league has been as consistent in the regular season as the Wildcats. His team won eight games in 2012, thanks in large part to an incredibly efficient offense. Quarterback Andy Vailas threw 18 touchdowns and just three picks while also averaging 4.5 yards per carry on the ground. McDonnel was the man that gave current Eagles coach Chip Kelly his first offensive coordinator job, and he still employs Kelly’s up-tempo attacking philosophies. Former Hens quarterback Ryan Carty (who backed up Joe Flacco at UD) is the Wildcats’ current coordinator, and has eight starters back from a season ago. New Hampshire lost linebacker Matt Evans and had some ugly stats on defense. Still, the numbers were somewhat skewed by particularly rough days against Old Dominion, Minnesota and Richmond. If they can play with a tad more consistency (and take advantage of ODU’s departure) the Wildcats have the offensive pieces in place to be a double-digit win team. The non-conference schedule is not easy though, with contests against Central Michigan, Colgate and Lehigh. The conference-opener comes at Towson, so UNH is a candidate to finish much stronger than it starts.
4. James Madison (8-4)
No team has done less with more talent over the last half-decade than the Dukes. Mickey Matthews has had more speed at his disposal than any team in the league over the last five seasons, but mental mistakes, turnovers and a lack of consistent production from the quarterback position have doomed Madison’s postseason hopes. And wouldn’t you know it; JMU is dealing with more questions at signal caller this offseason. The Dukes have Michael Birdsong returning, but the sophomore needed emergency surgery to remove his appendix in early-August. He is expected to be ready by Opening Day, but the missed reps during training camp had to slow the sophomore’s development. If he can lead the offense to even mediocrity, the Dukes figure to be very good. Their defense annually ranks at or near the top in every CAA statistical measure. It will be anchored by the league’s reigning Player of the Year, middle linebacker Stephon Robertson. The Dukes are due to produce. If they don’t, Mickey Matthews may pay for the annual underachievement of his football team, with his job.
5. Delaware (7-5)
We will have plenty to come this week on the Hens, but Dave Brock’s team could really go one of two ways this year. Delaware has a ton of talent, but it has huge question marks on the offensive line and at quarterback. The line was like a revolving door for opposing defensive lines at times last season. While that unit returns all five starters, sometimes you don’t get better simply because you get a year older. But at the same time, a new coaching staff might be exactly what that group needed. Meanwhile, Trent Hurley has to prove that his struggles near the end of last season were the product of his offensive line’s struggles. The Bowling Green transfer finished 2012 with four more interceptions (14) than touchdown passes (10). If those types of numbers continue, it will keep the Hens from competing with the CAA’s elite. If Hurley protects the ball, Delaware is capable of winning eight games and sneaking into the playoffs.
6. Richmond (7-5)
The Spiders surprised almost everyone (including me, who picked them to finish dead-last in the CAA) by winning eight games in 2012. The Spiders somehow did not qualify for the playoffs, which seems impossible in retrospect. Still, you wonder just how good Richmond really is. They won some games with smoke and mirrors last year and relied too heavily upon turnovers. When you factor in the fact that they lost their dual-threat starting quarterback to graduation, the conclusion is obvious; The Spiders have to take at least a half-step back. Still, this team is incredibly good on both the offensive and defensive lines, which means it will win games. Keep an eye out for redshirt freshman David Broadus. He is the Spiders’ punter, but is also expected to serve as a change-of-pace, running-threat at quarterback.
7. William & Mary (7-5)
I’m a big Notre Dame fan. When Bob Davie coached the Irish, his offenses were often dull and difficult to watch. The exception to that rule was when Kevin Rogers served as offensive coordinator from 1999-2001. During those years the Golden Domers qualified for their only BCS Bowl during the Davie era. Rogers also had success grooming Donovan McNabb at Syracuse and as Brett Favre’s quarterback coach with the Minnesota Vikings. The Tribe hired his as their offensive coordinator during the offseason. He knows what he is doing, and will breathe life into what has become a dormant attack in Williamsburg. The first step back to success will be to settle on one man as the starting quarterback. The Tribe have had a revolving door of signal callers over the last three seasons. Rogers’ creativity, along with eight returning starters on offense, should be enough to lift William & Mary into the middle of the CAA’s pack.
8. Maine (5-7)
Jack Cosgrove is a great coach and he has a really strong defense to build around this season. The Black Bears allowed the fewest points in the CAA a year ago and return eight starters on that side of the ball for 2013. Still, it is tough not to recall how mightily the offense struggled at times last season. Tight end Justin Perillo (a Delaware native) is back, but he enjoyed more success as a blocker than a pass-catcher in 2012. He will need to increase upon his 30-catch total, particularly inside the red zone, in order for Maine to get back into postseason contention.
9. Stony Brook (4-7)
If Stony Brook had been in the CAA a season ago, it probably would have won the league. The Seawolves dominated CAA regular season champion Villanova in the first round of the playoffs. Anyone who watched that game and didn’t think Stony Brook would find success quickly in their move to the CAA is kidding themselves. This is not the year for Chuck Priore’s football team however. The Seawolves lost 12 starters, which is a ridiculously high number. If Stony Brook wins eight games, Priore automatically earns Coach of the Year honors no matter what anyone else does.
10. Rhode Island (2-10)
You never want anyone to lose their job, but at the same time, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I’m shocked Rhode Island did not part ways with head coach Joe Trainer last season. The Rams were last in FCS in points scored on offense, and were almost as bad defensively. Add it up, and not surprisingly, Rhode Island went winless in 2012. Things have nowhere to go but up in 2013.
11. Albany (1-11)
Bob Ford is a legend. He has been the head coach at the University at Albany since the program existed as a club sport. The new stadium the school will open this season bears his name, and deservedly so. That being said, there is no way his team will be able to withstand the rigors of a full CAA season. The Great Danes had only 35 scholarships a season ago. That number has increased by 19 this year, but it is unlikely to be enough to avoid disaster in Ford’s final campaign in charge.