Who’s the CAA favorite and who are the threats? Who has the best offense and defense? How many standouts does each team have coming back? All of that and more.
Welcome to the 2020 FCS summer preview series.
Every week will be dedicated to a conference as we break down the top teams, top players and what you need to know about the league heading into the season. We’ll have standings predictions, preseason All-Conference teams, top players to keep an eye on, podcasts and more.
The full conference-by-conference schedule and all of our preview content can be seen right here.
This week, we have the …
Colonial Athletic Association
For a more in-depth look at the conference, check out the new episodes of B-Mac and Herd’s FCS Podcast coming this week.
THE FAVORITE: James Madison— Last year? This was by a mile an easy prediction and there was no question about it and guess what? We were right. The Dukes were loaded, they’d hired an awesome coach who’d built a playoff program at Elon, and it didn’t take a rocket scientist to make the prediction.
This year? It’s nowhere near as easy to say. I can’t tell you how close I came to putting Villanova as the favorite above and I’m still wondering if I should. It was splitting hairs and I’m still questioning this choice as I type. Honestly? I think it’s 1A and 1B situation. I watched first hand in Harrisonburg this Villanova team give a really, really, really good JMU team fits for three quarters … even with a stud like Justin Covington unavailable at RB after leading the FCS nation in rushing much of September. Villanova QB Daniel Smith found ways to make plays for a good chunk of that game before JMU finally came crashing down on ‘Nova in the end.
‘Yes, by the end of the year this Wildcats program was war torn and it lost in the playoffs earlier than most of us would have expected … and one has to think ‘Nova is chomping at the bit to tighten things up on defense to make this a team that can compete with anybody in the FCS. But I think that hunger makes the Wildcats as dangerous as they’ve been since 2009 when they won the national title just prior to NDSU’s monstrous run of the 2010s. Folks, it boils down to this … if JMU reloads (as it usually does), the recruiting classes it has brought in since Mike Houston and certainly under Curt Cignetti will lead to another conference title in a brutal CAA. But if there is any kind of stalling in getting the engine cranked … Don’t rule out a potential Villanova CAA championship. Keep an eye on this, folks.
Again, 1A and 1B.
THE THREATS: Everybody — Think I’m chickening out here by not committing to just one? I’m not. Aside from the aforementioned teams at JMU and ‘Nova, look at the returning QB play at schools like Albany, Elon, Richmond and Stony Brook (and they aren’t the only ones). Look at the brutal defense exhibited by New Hampshire, considering the circumstances, and take a gander at what UNH and Coach Mac return (welcome back coach!). The truth is? The MVFC may have the tippity top upper crust in the FCS this year. In fact, I don’t even think there’s a question with that, as I think the best opportunities to knock off loaded and experienced NDSU come within its own conference. But, when it comes to top-to-bottom conference depth and filling out the national Top 10 and Top 25? The CAA clearly dominates all of the FCS conferences in this kind of depth. The only team I think can’t sneak up and snatch a win against the CAA’s elite is Rhode Island as it rebuilds, and last year I would have said the opposite with some of the pro talent Rhody had on board under Jim Fleming.
Truth is? This is the most balanced conference in the FCS. Of the 12 teams within this league, 11 have been to the FCS playoffs since 2015. These programs all have the capability to train-wreck a top league program and cost it a playoff spot in November.
THE DARK HORSES: Delaware, Elon, New Hampshire, Richmond … oh I give up — Honestly, there are more teams we could list here, but Delaware’s defense could be tough at times and returns a bunch of talent. Elon? How about the Dean of CAA quarterbacking in Elon’s Davis Cheek, along with an intact group of skill position studs, playmakers back on offense and a solid group back on defense? And New Hampshire? Coach Mac is back, Sean McDonnell, and this Granite Boys defense likes to chew on rocks when it isn’t chewing on offenses. Richmond looks as good as it has since NFL draft pick Kyle Lauletta left. Where’s the easy “out” here, folks, we only mentioned four? And Towson get’s Weber State’s playoff seasoned QB Jake Constantine as a transfer and slice-and-dice man Shane Simpson back for a sixth year (well deserved)?
My head is spinning … get me a Towson … errr, a Tylenol. See what I mean?
BEST OFFENSE: Villanova — The Wildcats scored 37+ points a game last year, return starting QB Daniel Smith (3,200+ yards passing, accounted for 47 TDs). In all, 10 starters return on “O”, the offensive line is intact, Changa Hodge is a scary receiving threat, RB Justin Covington is back off injury after being the nation’s leading rusher for much of September. Avoiding the injury bug is the key, as it hasn’t left ‘Nova alone in years … but if it stays away? Watch out, FCS.
BEST DEFENSE: James Madison— Want to know the reason James Madison won’t fall off much — if at all — this year even though new names need to emerge in the lineup? Because of how this program reloads on defense and through recruiting. It happened under Mike Houston, and it’s going to happen under Curt Cignetti too. Statistically, this defense has been Top 10 in all the key categories for three solid years running, and it won the national title the year before that. That has happened with veteran names, and that has happened with new names. I do love what New Hampshire returns on defense and I think it will be the cornerstone of why UNH bounces back into the national discussion this year, but this JMU defense will once again be stifling — using those names we talked a whole lot about during recruiting.
THE TRUTH: Folks, it’s going to come down to opportunities, it’ll come down to favorable schedules … and it’ll come down to quarterback play, honestly. I think the CAA could ultimately boil down to the savvy veteran who has been here, done that before. There is so much talent returning this year that I think this will be the tiebreaker. Last year we saw a bottleneck of really good teams battling into November for 7 or 8-win seasons. This makes for awesome storylines in the media, but isn’t necessarily good for the CAA when it comes to Selection Sunday.
What the CAA really needs is 3 or 4 elite teams to handle the next 8 or 9 or so teams in the league when they do battle, and then a hierarchy emerges among the top 3 or 4 elite. If this turns into a scrum again from the No. 3 position to the No. 10 position? It may hurt the league, not because it’s not a great league, but because it will chop itself up with two many .500-ish teams in CAA league play. That’s the biggest thing I’m curious about — are we going to see another year where we come into the final weeks wondering if three quarters of the league will hover between 5-3 and 3-5 in CAA play, or are we going to get an elite group of teams going 7-1 or 6-2 or maybe even better? I honestly could see this going either way.
NAMES TO KNOW
THE NFL PROSPECT: Changa Hodge, Villanova, WR — Electric is one word to describe this stud receiver, and some scouting services already are discussing him as a fringe Day Three NFL Draft prospect — and FCS prospects tend to rise quickly their senior seasons when they show out, which Hodge is fully capable of doing. There are several great prospects in the CAA along with Hodge, including JMU O-lineman Liam Fornadel, Hodge’s teammate Jaquan Amos (a CB), Swiss Army knife RB Shane Simpson, the top All-Purpose guy in the FCS coming out of Towson … and there are good ones in the 2022 class too, but Hodge tops the chart.
TOP OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Daniel Smith, Villanova, QB — He has all the weapons, and he’s been moving the ball well since he was a freshman at Campbell what seems like a decade ago. Smith has a solid and seasoned line in front of him, outstanding running backs, outstanding pass targets … and he can hurt you with his legs (12 rushing TDs) as well as his arm (35 passing TDs).
TOP DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Mike Greene, James Madison, DL — There are several good candidates for this slot. Greene (11 TFLs, 7.5 sacks, 6 hurries) just seems primed to bust out now that studs like John Daka and Ron’dell Carter have moved on. Other great candidates? How about Richmond’s Kobie Turner, Albany’s Levi Metheny? And you know bounceback candidates like Delaware’s Colby Reeder and Maine’s Deshawn Stevens are primed to make their arguments, too. This should be a postseason accolade to keep an eye on, for sure.
Most Returning All-Conference Players From 2019
Any returning player that had a 2019 on-field honor from their conference counts toward their team total, including honorable mentions and All-Newcomer Teams.
7- James Madison
4- New Hampshire
3- Albany, Towson
Most Returning All-American Players From 2019
Includes HERO Sports 1st Team, 2nd Team, 3rd Team, Sophomore, Freshman
4 – James Madison- Liam Fornadel (1st team OL); D’Angelo Amos (2nd team Special Teams star); Ethan Ratke (3rd team PK); Percy Agyei-Obese (3rd team RB).
3 – Richmond- Kobie Turner (Soph. All American DL); Tristan Wheeler (Fresh. All American LB); Aaron Dykes (Fresh. All American KR).
2 – Albany- Karl Mofor (2nd team RB); Jeff Undercuffler (Fresh. All American QB).
Brian and Sam discuss their preseason Top 25 on B-Mac and Herd’s FCS Podcast, which is also available on Apple Podcasts, iTunes, Spotify, iHeart, Stitcher and Spreaker.
SUBSCRIBE: B-Mac and Herd’s FCS Podcast
Listen to “Ep. 40: Discussing Our Preseason Top 25 Poll” on Spreaker.