Somewhere, during a rare, private moment on a busy Tuesday morning in downtown Baltimore, Maine head coach Nick Charlton must have understood.
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Fresh off a conference championship season, the 2019 Black Bears were slotted to finish third in the conference at CAA Media Day, behind No. 1 James Madison (20 of 24 first-place votes) and Tom Flacco’s No. 2 Towson Tigers. The Black Bears had 16 starters coming back, including a multi-year playmaker at quarterback in Chris Ferguson and an All-American corner in Manny Patterson.
The reigning champ? Picked third? Charlton and his team would have been right to feel disrespected, dejected or angry.
Perhaps he was even apathetic – it’s only a preseason poll. Who cares? Line your 22 up against my 22, and let’s see who wins the day.
Charlton would have been right to feel any of those emotions. He might be a rookie head coach, but it was still his offense that won the CAA in 2018. It’s still his guys that earned the rings. Weeks after everyone else had gone home, it was the Black Bears left in the FCS semifinals. Not JMU. Not Towson. Not Delaware or rival New Hampshire. Maine.
Yes, he’d be right to feel all of that.
On the other hand… Maine isn’t a blue blood in the CAA. The Black Hole of Orono has long been feared as both a defensive and geographic challenge, but Maine has never been a program capable of creating success and then sustaining it over multiple years. Like many college programs, the Black Bears break through with incredible, home-grown teams, not splashy recruiting rankings or NFL Draft darlings. Conference championships aren't uncommon, but repeat performances are rare.
In its entire history, Maine has won back-to-back conference championships one time – during the peak of the Jack Cosgrove years in the old Atlantic 10, from 2001-2002. Prior to 2018, it had a 3-7 record in the FCS Playoffs; Cosgrove was responsible for all three wins.
Mix in a first-time head coach, with Joe Harasymiak now working for PJ Fleck in Minnesota, and a first-time defensive coordinator, after Corey Hetherman was poached by the Dukes, and…
Well… On some level, Charlton must have understood. Right?
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Fortunately for the Black Bears, this 2019 team is more than good enough to prove the doubters wrong – again. No longer is Maine a quaint regional power that relies on its defense for ugly, snowy wins; instead, the Black Bears have built one of its most balanced teams in program history. The defense is solid through all three levels and should continue to frighten visiting opponents – especially in November and December.
As for the other side of the ball, Charlton’s offense should hit its zenith this season, with Ferguson now an upperclassman and tons of weapons around him.
“Our big emphasis is going from a solid offense to an elite, dynamic offense,” Charlton said during that Baltimore Media Day. “I feel like we service both sides really, really well, and we had some explosive plays, but it’s time to take that next step, offensively.”
The current gold standard for CAA offense in 2019 happens to be the team that Maine has on the schedule this Saturday. Flacco, the conference’s Preseason Offensive Player of the Year, wants to build on a season where he generated 4,000 yards of offense and accounted for 32 touchdowns. Flacco’s fireworks were enough to vault him into a fifth-place finish for the Walter Payton award in 2018, but it wasn’t nearly enough to overcome a slew of late-season injuries to Towson’s roster. Devastated on both sides of the ball, Towson bowed out in the first round of the playoffs with a bitter loss to Duquesne. Flacco went 10-for-33 with 127 yards passing, and the Tigers never scored after halftime.
In other words, Charlton’s club isn’t the only team with something to prove.
“[Towson players] are chompin’ at the bit. They remember losing at home against a quality ball club that ended up winning the conference title last year,” said Towson head coach Rob Ambrose, referencing last year’s game, during this week’s CAA Coaches teleconference. “Now, we gotta drive a long, long, long way from home to play a great football team. It’s not lost on them.”
Ambrose’s team may have been selected one rung higher in July, but even a casual observer could tell you that the CAA preseason poll generally isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. Maine and Towson were picked to finish 8th and 10th in the league last year, respectively, underscoring the reality that CAA preseason polls are a particularly high-octane brand of useless. Despite the September kickoff date, Ambrose knows that this week’s challenge could be a season-defining one.
“[Maine] has taken a very, very good defense from last year, and somehow found a way to make it better,” Ambrose said Monday. “It’s one of the best football teams I’ve seen on film in a long time.”
In the wider context of this year’s conference title chase, this game is critically important, but it takes on a different flavor for each team. For Towson, a brutal schedule leaves the Tigers in need of securing a win outside of Maryland, with road contests at FBS Florida, No. 2 JMU and RV Stony Brook left on the schedule. A big win this early could set the tone for Towson and give it the inside track toward a CAA title, but it could also ease the playoff pressure in some of those late-season games.
For Maine, a win in its most pivotal CAA game of the year would be a massive feather in the cap. The Black Bears won’t face JMU during the regular season, which means a loss here could leave them a step behind both of its primary conference competitors before the calendar even flips to October. Conversely, a win could pressure Madison into keeping pace with Maine's early head start in conference play.
Those are problems for the future, though. For now, two teams with plenty of juice are making final preparations to square off in Orono. It’s the region’s must-watch game of the week – and when the two-time defending national champion is coming to Delaware, that’s really saying something.
Any coach worth his salt will tell you that a one-game-at-a-time mentality is fundamental to college football. Successful teams have a short memory and a sharp focus.
Still, it seems impossible to ignore how the pretext of 2018 shapes this game as the launching pad for the rest of the 2019 CAA season. Maine is favored to win – and as the reigning champion, perhaps it should be – but this is the CAA. Anything can happen.
“Do I think we can replace what we did in 2018? I don’t think that’s really what the guys are trying to do,” Charlton said, back in Baltimore. “We’re trying to be the best that we can be, and hopefully that exceeds 2018, but I don’t think we’re thinking too much about that. It’s on to the next one for us.”
This week, that next game is a pretty big one. With a win over Towson, Maine can prove to all the doubters that the Black Bears are here to stay.