Often, as the FCS season approaches the heart of October, the weekly slate of games gets more appetizing as Top 25 teams earn their ranking primarily on the merit of this season, not last, and those ranked squads face each other in conference play.
This week’s action around the country is particularly juicy, even more delectable than the popular pumpkin-flavored beverages of this time of year.
In the Missouri Valley Football Conference, it should be noted, No. 16 Northern Iowa travels to No. 5 North Dakota State in a matchup of perennially ranked MVFC schools (seriously, when was the last time these two met with one unit unranked, let alone both?) while an enticing FCS quarterfinal rematch occurs as No. 8 Southern Illinois returns to No. 2 South Dakota State with an ax to grind.
That Valley schedule calls for plenty of popcorn. But a power conference counterpart in the CAA is especially known for its tendency of members top to bottom to chop each other up starting in October. This gauntlet results in many contenders hovering over .500 in league play by season’s end in a complicated at-large playoff picture. The trend will be back in motion Saturday when the conference’s top four teams in the standings collide within their own foursome.
No. 9 Delaware and No. 18 Rhode Island meet to kick off the CAA’s pair of headliner games, followed by No. 11 Villanova at No. 3 James Madison.
Breaking down these showdowns:
Delaware @ Rhode Island
Taking a brief victory lap, I ranked URI (23) in my preseason Top 25 for our HERO Sports poll. Now, the 4-0 Rams are off to their best start in 20 years and have cracked the Top 20 in Stats Perform’s poll. QB Kasim Hill, RB Justice Antrum, and WR Ivory Frimpong have keyed a high-flying offense that outlasted Stony Brook in overtime last week. Rhody is knocking on the door of Sam Herder’s weekly FCS bracketology study.
The inevitable not-so-fast comes here: Rhode Island’s strength of schedule to date is lacking. The Rams swept in-state opponents Bryant and Brown in non-conference and have taken out a struggling CAA duo in UAlbany and Stony Brook. Delaware’s arrival in Kingston gives URI a chance to move to 5-0 against a Top 10 foe, and the stakes don’t stop there.
Rhode Island avoids JMU in its regular-season schedule. Operating under the hypothesis of the Dukes going unbeaten in the CAA, starting with a win over Delaware, Rhody can stay in the chase for a conference co-championship, a remarkable thought for a program that has floundered historically. In short, the Rams, if victorious over UD, control their own destiny to at least a share of the CAA crown regardless of what James Madison does.
The Blue Hens will have something to say about all that, though. Their defense, bolstered by the return of standout safety Noah Plack, returned to form last week vs. UAlbany, surrendering just three field goals before a late Great Dane touchdown narrowed the final spread.
Delaware’s uncertainty lies with its offense due to mounting injury issues. Starting QB Nolan Henderson is battling at least one ongoing injury that must be managed for the duration of the season. Sacked thrice by UAlbany, Henderson exited with aggravation of his hip/groin/abdomen problem(s). He was able to return to the field to exclusively execute handoffs after backup Zach Gwynn took a shot to the ribs making a tackle after an interception he threw.
On Tuesday, Henderson was still classified as day-to-day and reportedly in street clothes for that evening’s practice with Gwynn back running the first team. Making matters more complex, Hens tailback Khory Spruill, who is first in line to spell starter Dejoun Lee and is recognized as UD’s premier pass-blocker at RB, figures to be sidelined an extended time with a foot/ankle injury that will likely keep him out of the URI game.
Villanova @ James Madison
This massive meeting, one that didn’t occur a season ago because the teams occupied different divisions during the CAA’s geographically oriented spring schedule, constitutes Villanova’s first chance to scale the Top 25 meaningfully. The Wildcats, hanging just outside the Top 10, have dates with Rhode Island and archrival Delaware later in their schedule, but a win at JMU would launch them into the playoff seed discussion before encountering either of those teams late-season. Call it a true trajectory changer.
Nova/JMU games have long pitted strong offenses against each other, and this edition is consistent with that, showcasing a QB battle between Wildcat leader Daniel Smith and Duke signal-caller Cole Johnson. Supporting both quarterbacks are running back rooms that boast a competitive claim to deepest in the CAA. In James Madison’s case, it has been missing longtime starter Percy Agyei-Obese due to injury, but it still leads the conference in rushing yards per game, eclipsing 200 yards a contest.
Villanova and James Madison, both prominent at or near the top of the CAA’s statistical leaderboards, have put together a thrilling series, one seen on ESPN’s College GameDay in the past, and this Saturday’s installation completes a tandem of CAA games that will shake up the top of the league standings.
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