The return of complete fall FCS football has different meanings to various conferences. The Ivy League held no competition in the 2020-21 academic year. The WAC-ASUN “AQ7” scheduling alliance didn’t even exist prior to this fall. With nonconference play kicking back in nationally after spring’s near-total hiatus, the Missouri Valley Football Conference and Big Sky have been able to resume their challenge series.
In the CAA, 11 of 12 schools are coming off participating to some extent in the spring season, completed or otherwise, so this fall’s faces are familiar. Gone, however, are the regional divisions (North and South) installed temporarily by the league to limit travel and associated costs during the height of the pandemic.
The lifting of that spring policy returns to the FCS compelling games such as Saturday’s top-25 showdown between Richmond (formerly in the CAA South) and Villanova (formerly in the CAA North).
The No. 21 Spiders hit the road for the first time this season to meet the No. 12 Wildcats in both teams’ conference opener. UR and VU have rolled through two nonconference games each against younger, inferior competition, making Saturday’s game at Villanova the first true test for the squads, both of which are seeking to elevate in the “non-James Madison” tier of the CAA that is jockeying for at-large playoff spots (presuming the Dukes clinch the automatic bid over defending league champion Delaware).
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In many ways, Richmond and Villanova mirror each other. Each boasts a reliably productive veteran quarterback (Joe Mancuso for the Spiders and Daniel Smith for the ’Cats). Each is stacked on defense, with Kobie Turner, Tyler Dressler, and Tristan Wheeler of Richmond matching up with Forrest Rhyne and Christian Benford of Villanova. All of the aforementioned players are examples of the high experience returned by both teams, which can be attributed in part to the extra year of eligibility afforded by the NCAA’s COVID-19 eligibility relief program.
Richmond and Villanova also enter their contest Saturday as programs of similar standing. Both have occupied the upper half of the CAA in recent history, roughly the past 8-10 years, but missed the truncated spring playoffs after falling to rivals to conclude the regular season (Richmond to JMU in the South, Villanova to Delaware in the North).
With no assurance that the CAA will earn more than two at-large postseason qualifiers this fall as the MVFC and Big Sky threaten to vulture bids, there might not be room for both the Spiders and Wildcats in this fall’s bracket, even in the return to a full field of 24. That projection makes Saturday’s tussle at Villanova Stadium all the more important.
The victor, after outclassing nonconference foes to open September, will have its first playoff-resume-building win to tout in a perennially crowded (and now division-less) CAA race.
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