This Saturday's CAA spotlight will shine on two of the grittiest teams in FCS Football
Week 11 is business as usual for the Colonial Athletic Association, as there's yet another massive game with conference title, playoff berth and national seed implications. No. 11 Delaware will travel up to Long Island in an effort to grind out a win against No. 12 Stony Brook.
The stakes are high for both teams. With a win, Delaware (7-2, 5-1) would have inside positioning for its first CAA championship in eight years. Past that, it could also stamp its resume with another marquee win, as part of a late-season push to slip into seeded territory. The Blue Hens have not lost a game since their trip to Fargo on Sept. 22.
Stony Brook (6-3, 4-2) is trying to secure a playoff bid of its own, but it lacks the win streak that UD has. It lost its last outing, 13-10, on Oct. 27 in Harrisonburg.
The Seawolves have the top two rushers in the CAA (Donald Liotine, 96 ypg, and Jordan Gowins, 95 ypg), as well as the conference's No. 3 scoring defense (20.9 ppg). They've also ranked inside the top 20 of the STATS FCS Poll since mid-September. Nevertheless, Stony Brook is in some danger of missing the playoffs, simply because of the greatness of the CAA this season. The Colonial could field somewhere between four and seven genuinely playoff-worthy teams, but at least one or two will be squeezed out of the field. The Seawolves want to be on the right side of the conference's inevitable chopping block, and a season-defining win over Delaware would do the trick.
Stony Brook, which earned its first-ever at-large FCS Playoff berth in 2017, is a program whose stock has steadily risen over the past few years. The Seawolves moved up from the Big South in 2013 and quickly discovered the competitive gap between the two conferences; its current senior class is largely responsible for the rapid growth the program has seen over these last five years.
"We went through some earlier years when we first joined the CAA where we weren't where we are today, and we had to understand that it was going to be a process to get there," head coach Chuck Priore told media members earlier this week. "We were willing to learn. A lot of our seniors were not top kids for other programs. A lot of them only had one scholarship offer, and that was at Stony Brook. A number of them were walk-ons. They've developed themselves into very good players by spending the time off the field and philosophically understanding what it takes to be successful."
Saturday's Delaware game is an important referendum on Stony Brook's standing in the CAA, and whether or not it can continue its upward trajectory. October's 13-10 loss at James Madison was as impressive as a loss can reasonably be, but it still counted against the Seawolves in the standings the same as any other game would. Stony Brook's remaining FCS loss was a 52-28 blowout at Towson, but frankly, that loss was more an aberration than it was an accurate reflection of the team's grit'n'grind nature. If nothing else, the Seawolves are a tough out.
Delaware will need to execute effectively on both sides of the ball if it wants to avoid falling into the same two-loss mosh pit that much of the remainder of the conference is currently in. Delaware Coach Danny Rocco praised Stony Brook's defensive size and pressure early this week, calling the Seawolves "probably one of the bigger teams in our league." To supplement an inevitable war in the trenches, UD will likely utilize tight ends, screens and play-action.
Delaware will also have an advantage in the kicking game — redshirt senior PK Frank Raggo is 10-of-13 on field goals in 2018, which ranks near the top of the CAA. In a tight game, that's likely to be a factor.
Saturday's game between Delaware and Stony Brook is one of two marquee CAA games with massive conference and NCAA Playoff implications. (The other is Towson at Elon.) Should Stony Brook win, both teams are likely to finish 8-3 and receive at-large bids to the playoff. There's also a very real chance that Stony Brook's upset sets the tables for a massive log-jam at the top of the conference; as many as four teams could finish 6-2 and share the championship.
On the other hand, if Delaware wins, it's distinctly possible that Maine and Delaware could split the title with identical 7-1 conference records. Both teams could receive first-round playoff byes, and Stony Brook could potentially miss the playoffs.
Because of all that, this Saturday's game on the Island is a major inflection point in both the regional and national picture. Fortunately, it's a position both coaches have been in before.
"Coach Priore and I have been competing against each other since my days at Liberty, back in the Big South," Rocco said. "We've played a number of late-season games that were very meaningful, for conference standings and things like that. This game is following the same script."
"We've had some great games against each other. Every time I watch his kids play, they're physical and well-prepared," Priore said. "I'm sure it'll be no different this Saturday."