CAA contenders face tough early tests

BY foxsports • September 2, 2016

In what should be another challenging and competitive CAA Football season, most of the conference's flagship programs are wasting no time finding out where they may stand.

Of the six CAA teams in the STATS FCS preseason Top 25, five will open play this week on the road against FBS opponents. Ninth-ranked William & Mary got that ambitious stretch underway with Thursday's 48-14 loss at ACC member North Carolina State.

The league has notched its share of landmark wins against FBS schools over the years - with James Madison's 21-16 stunner over nationally ranked Virginia Tech in 2010 the most notable - and nearly pulled off another when Maine led Connecticut well into the fourth quarter before the Huskies rallied for a 24-21 win Thursday.

Still, the outcome of these "payday" games is often secondary to CAA coaches eager to gauge how their team responds in an adverse environment, an experience designed to help prepare for the more important games that lie ahead.

"I want to see how we tackle, I want to see how we protect, all the things we need to do and how we play on special teams," New Hampshire coach Sean McDonnell said of the No. 22 Wildcats' visit to San Diego State (8:30 p.m. ET) on Saturday. "It's a huge opportunity for your program and it's a great opportunity for your program."

Towson's Rob Ambrose isn't simply concerned with the process, however, when his 24th-ranked Tigers head to Tampa's Raymond James Stadium on Saturday night (7 p.m. ET) to face a talented South Florida team coming off an 8-5 season and bowl appearance.

"We're not flying down there to lose," he said. "While they're extremely impressive and intelligent, hard-hitting and fast, there's only 11 of them allowed on the field, thank God. We have 11 guys that can play football, too. A great challenge, and (we'll) give it everything we've got."

Ambrose may have reason for optimism if ballyhooed Oregon transfer and former four-star recruit Morgan Mahalak can provide an immediate spark and stability to the quarterback position that the Tigers at times lacked while narrowly missing the playoffs during a 7-4 finish to 2015.

Villanova's Andy Talley, entering his 32nd and final season as head coach, isn't as enthusiastic about his team's chances Saturday at Pittsburgh (1:30 p.m. ET). He's even more concerned considering the No. 23 Wildcats are missing a trio of key injured starters in All-CAA cornerback Malik Reaves, linebacker Corey Majors and tailback Matt Gudzak.

"I'm not a proponent of (FBS games)," he said. "Frankly, a lot of the (other) coaches do a great job telling you what a challenge it is and all that, but the truth of the matter is they're bigger, faster and stronger. So the key for me is to play as well as we can play and hopefully we get out of it with no injuries."

New Hampshire also finds itself in a seemingly tough spot against defending Mountain West champion San Diego State, an expected contender for the Group of Five's New Year's Six bowl slot. The Aztecs return the conference's offensive (RB Donnell Pumphrey), defensive (CB Damontae Kazee) and special teams (RS Rashaad Penny) players of the year to a team that routed Cincinnati in last year's Hawaii Bowl to cap an 11-win season.

"This is the best football team we've ever played here at UNH, and that's going from 1974 since I've been part of this program," McDonnell said. "They're really, really talented."

The Wildcats allowed 707 total yards in a 43-13 loss to another MWC member, San Jose State, in last year's opener.

Fourth-ranked Richmond appears to hold the conference's best chance of springing an FBS upset when the preseason CAA favorite travels to Virginia on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET). The Cavaliers got all they could handle from William & Mary in a 35-29 victory last September, though this Wahoos team figures to bear little resemblance - at least schematically - under former BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall.

Virginia is a 12-point favorite.

"You've got to make a lot of calculated decisions when you are playing an opponent with a new staff in place," Spiders coach Danny Rocco said. "So kind of a little bit of a delicate task here, but I think we've gone about it the right way."


Stony Brook could soon be giving the conference another Top 25 resident following Thursday's 13-9 win over No. 19 North Dakota at LaValle Stadium. The graduation of CAA co-defensive player of the year and current Baltimore Raven Victor Ochi hasn't taken the bite out of a rugged Seawolves unit that led FCS in total defense and allowed a conference-low 15.7 points per game last season. The group limited the Fighting Hawks to 177 total yards, generated four sacks and came up with a crucial 4th-and-1 stop with 2:14 remaining.

The stand protected a lead given by the Seawolves' special teams earlier in the fourth quarter, when Kye Morgan's touchdown return of Gavin Heslop's blocked punt deep in UND territory erased a 9-7 deficit with 8:52 left.

"I'm really proud of the team," coach Chuck Priore said. 'With the adversity throughout the game, we responded and we kept on making plays. You have to make fourth quarter plays and you have to make end-of-the-game plays. Fourth-and-1 and we stopped it. We needed a first down to kill the game and we killed it. In the past we've lost those games."

The end result carries additional weight considering Stony Brook's rigorous opening stretch. The Seawolves visit Temple next weekend before hosting Richmond on Sept. 17.

"I'm going to be very candid with you, this game needed to be a win for Stony Brook University," Priore said.


A capsule look at this weekend's other games involving CAA teams (all times Eastern):

Friday, Sept. 2

Albany at Buffalo, 7 p.m.

- The Great Danes face an FBS school for the second time in program history and aim to improve on the first such meeting, a 51-14 loss to Buffalo in last year's opener. With 2015 CAA co-defensive rookie of the year Julian Cox headlining a group of 19 returning starters, Albany may be better equipped to handle the class rise this time around.

Saturday, Sept. 3

Gardner-Webb at Elon, 3:30 p.m.

- If last year's matchup is any indication, this should be among the more unpredictable contests on the conference slate. The Phoenix needed triple overtime to outlast Gardner-Webb in a 21-13 thriller, with the Runnin' Bulldogs forcing OT with a touchdown on the final play of regulation. Elon's offense mustered a mere 165 total yards through four quarters, but Connor Christiansen hit Corey Joyner for a 25-yard touchdown to give the Phoenix their fourth win in the series' last five meetings.

Morehead State at No. 12 James Madison, 6 p.m.

- The Dukes play the first of two warmups for their Sept. 17 showdown with North Carolina when Morehead State visits Bridgeforth Stadium for a second straight year. JMU piled up a school-record 713 total yards - which it eclipsed three weeks later in a signature win at SMU - during last year's 56-7 season-opening rout of the Eagles. Though the quarterback situation remains unsettled with Bryan Schor and South Carolina transfer Connor Mitch waging a close camp competition to replace the dynamic Vad Lee, the excellent running back tandem of Cardon Johnson and Khalid Abdullah should ensure a positive first impression for new coach Mike Houston.

Rhode Island at Kansas, 7 p.m.

- One dubious streak will finally come to an end when the Rams make their inaugural visit to Lawrence. Kansas has lost 15 straight and 20 of its last 21 games, while Rhode Island has dropped 18 straight on the road since a 19-13 victory at Albany in September 2013. The Rams, losers of 25 of 27 overall, fell to 0-13 all-time against FBS teams with a 47-0 defeat at Syracuse in the 2015 opener.