By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — There were questions throughout the spring and summer about the stability of the Colonial Athletic Conference with the defection of new football members Georgia State and Old Dominion to the Football Bowl Subdivision ranks.
There were also persistent rumors that Virginia Commonwealth and George Mason would flee to greener basketball pastures. VCU finally announced it was moving to the Atlantic 10 — the conference that the CAA replaced in the oversight of football.
Rhode Island had already announced intentions to take its football program to the Northeast Conference in 2013 and Massachusetts moved to FBS and the Mid-American Conference after last season.
But while outside forces focused on a perceived weakness in the CAA's future, commissioner Tom Yeager was quietly regrouping.
Shortly after the CAA media day last month at M&T Bank Stadium, it was announced that Stony Brook and Albany would be joining the football confederation in 2013.
Stony Brook will leave the Big South after one last season, while Albany will move from the NEC. And Rhode Island is now reconsidering its move to the NEC.
With the addition of one more school, the CAA could return to 12 football-playing members and can, more than likely, reestablish its dominance as the Football Championship Division's deepest league.
If there was one thing that the CAA football coaches agreed upon at the recent media day, it was that they trusted Yeager to lead their schools through such treacherous waters.
"Old Dominion and Georgia State were not a part of this tradition and history anyway," said Delaware coach K.C. Keeler, a sentiment echoed by many of his peers.
The tradition that Keeler spoke of includes national titles for his own Blue Hens in 2003 and championship-game berths in 2007 and 2010. Other aspects of that tradition have included back-to-back titles for Richmond and Villanova in 2008-09 and a crown for UMass in 1998 to go with its runner-up finish in 2006.
And now with those other concerns placed firmly on the back burner, the CAA can work on creating more tradition in 2012.
This year should be similar to most others in the CAA, with six, or seven teams in contention for the title heading into the home stretch.
The CAA showed just how much balance it had last season when Towson edged Maine out for the conference crown after those two teams had been picked at the bottom of the preseason polls.
Georgia State and Old Dominion are ineligible for the conference title after declaring their intentions to leave the conference and will have to settle on trying to earn at-large bids to the 20-team playoffs.
One major difference this season is that, unlike most years, several teams come into the new season with questions at quarterback. Delaware, Maine, New Hampshire, William & Mary, Richmond, Rhode Island and Georgia State are all looking for answers as to who will direct their offenses.
But whichever team finishes as the top, you can expect another roller-coaster ride from beginning to end in 2012.
Predicted Order of Finish:
2. James Madison
6. New Hampshire
7. William & Mary
8. Rhode Island
Per league rules, Georgia State and Old Dominion are not eligible for the CAA championship this season because both teams have announced they are leaving for FBS after this season and are withdrawing from the CAA.
Towson (9-3 overall, 7-1 in conference) has completely changed its expectations in just one season. The "turnaround" Tigers were 1-10 in 2010, but skyrocketed to eight more wins last year — the biggest improvement in Division I football.
The Tigers will be potent on offense again with FCS freshman of the year Terrance West returning in the backfield. He rushed for 1,294 yards and 29 touchdowns last season, while averaging 6.7 yards per carry, but is backed up by several other strong runners like Dominique Booker.
Senior Grant Enders, a one-time backup to All-American Dominic Randolph at Holy Cross, transferred to Towson last fall and made an immediate impact with 2,468 yards of total offense. He should be even better as senior after throwing for 16 TDs and just eight interceptions last season, with the development of receivers like Leon Kinnard, Tom Ryan and tight end James Oboh.
Perhaps the biggest improvement for the Tigers was on the offensive line and the entire starting unit returns with additional depth.
On defense, Towson got worn down at times, but should be improved this season. The Tigers are led by a pair of All-American seniors, defensive end Frank Beltre and strong safety Jordan Dangerfield, a one-time Hofstra performer.
Derrick Joseph is one of the most dynamic kick returners in FCS and D.J. Soven is poised for an outstanding sophomore year as a kicker.
James Madison (8-5,6-2) was close to being a national title contender last year until quarterback Justin Thorpe was suspended for violating team rules. With Thorpe back, the Dukes advanced to the second round of the playoffs before being ousted by eventual national champion North Dakota State, 26-14.
Thorpe could be the top running quarterback in FCS this season after rushing for 385 yards in eight games last fall. He will get help in the Dukes' option attack from hard-running Dae'Quan Scott (1,304 yards, 12 TDs) and Jordan Anderson (859 yards, nine TDs).
Earl Watford head up an outstanding offensive line and Cameron Starke is developing into a top-flight place kicker after winning two games at the final gun in 2011.
On defense, JMU could have one of the top units in the nation, with junior linebacker Stephon Robertson and strong safety Dean Marlowe among the standouts of a deep squad.
Maine (9-4, 6-2) was another team that made major strides last season, advancing to the FCS quarterfinals before losing to Georgia Southern, and the Black Bears could be even better this season, if they can find a quarterback to replace graduated seniors Warren Smith and Chris Treister, running back Pushaun Brown and safeties Trevor Coston and Jerrod McMillian.
Marcus Wasilewski and John Eberling, a pair of juniors, are battling to succeed Smith as the starting signal-caller, but they will have a veteran line in front of them, including Chris Howley and a host of exceptional receivers with Maurice McDonald, Arthur Williams, Damarr Aultman and Derrick Johnson back.
All-American Justin Perillo is another threat at tight end, while David Hood is the leading returning ground gainer.
Outside the loss of the top safety duo in FCS from last year, the Black Bears are loaded on defense. All-American Michael Cole should emerge as one of the top pass rushers in the country and Donte Dennis returns from an injury to bring another honor squad performer to the defense.
Delaware (7-4, 5-3) came up a win short of the playoffs last year after falling a point short of a national championship the season before. This season, the Blue Hens hope a ball-control running game and a stout defense gets them back into the national picture.
Andrew Pierce (2,934 yards and 30 TDs rushing in two seasons) and has been one of the top running backs around as a freshman and a sophomore. He has a solid line to open holes for him and a capable back-up with David Hayes.
But Delaware must settle on a quarterback between returning senior stater Tim Donnelly (1,732 yards passing), Bowling Green sophomore transfer Trent Hurley and Justin Burns.
Whoever starts can throw to Nihja White and Rob Jones, who also is a dangerous returnman. Sophomore tight end Nick Boyle is a developing threat.
Sean Banner is one of the most consistent kickers in FCS. He hit 15-of-20 field goals and all 29 extra point attempts last season.
The Blue Hens are another top-flight defense on paper, with linebacker Paul Worrilow and cornerback Marcus Burley among the standouts.
Villanova (2-9, 1-7) fell further than any team in FCS last season after losing such stalwarts as Matt Szczur, Ben Ijalana and Chris Whitney from an outstanding senior class. Injuries to players like Norman White and new quarterback Dustin Thomas also took a toll on the offense.
But with 20 starters returning, the Wildcats could have just as big a turnaround in 2012. Chris Polony has settled into the quarterback role and Thomas has been moved to wide receiver. John Robertson, a redshirt freshman, showed promise in the wildcat formation last spring.
White will be a dynamic playmaker at wide receiver, with help from Joe Price and Dorian Wells, while Austin Medley and Kevin Monangai should lead an improved running game.
The biggest question on the offensive line is whether center Dan Shirey can rehabilitate an Achilles tendon injury. The rest of the line is solid with the likes of Josh Bucci.
There are few questions on defense with an outstanding defensive line paced by Antoine Lewis, Rakim Cox and Marlon Johnson and Dillon Lucas back at linebacker after an outstanding freshman year.
The five-man secondary, which allows the Wildcats such flexibility in its defensive scheme, includes Ronnie Akins and Eric Loper, though this group lost cornerback James Pitts to graduation.
A bigger loss is defensive coordinator Mark Reardon, who devised that innovative 3-3-5 defense. Reardon is being replaced by Billy Crocker.
Mark Hamilton is one of the top punters in FCS and is particularly good at ball placement. He also is accurate on placements.
New Hampshire (8-4, 6-2) has the longest string of playoff appearances in the country, making it every year since 2004 and the Wildcats have won postseason games in seven of the past eight years, but they must improve a porous defense and find a new quarterback to retain that success.
Coach Sean McDonnel, considered one of the nation's top head men, has named redshirt freshman Sean Goldrich as the surprise starter, but there are sure to be growing pains as Goldrich grows accustom to UNH's potent system.
There are plenty of playmakers around with Joey Orlando and R.J. Harris at wide receiver and Dontra Peters at running back. All-American Ricky Archer keys a very good offensive line.
Even with Buchanan Award winner Matt Evans patrolling at linebacker, the Wildcat defense was not of championship caliber and it is uncertain if there is a player to replace the contributions of graduated defensive end Brian McNally.
The secondary, one of the biggest problems last season, should be improved and Jared Smith should clog the middle at defensive tackle, but this unit has much to prove.
William & Mary (5-6, 3-5) was picked by some prognosticators to be an FCS title favorite last season, but the Tribe was undone by too many losses on defense and inconsistency and injuries at quarterback.
The loss of the incomparable Jonathan Grimes at running back makes things more difficult for an already challenged offense. Keith McBride will likely be the feature back of a group that will work by committee this year.
Brent Caprio and Michael Graham are battling it out for the starting quarterback job, but neither has established himself as the next in the long line of Jimmye Laycock-coached passing stars.
They should get great protection from a very good offensive line, however, and Ryan Moody leads a strong group of receivers.
The defense contains two of the top defensive backs in the country with BW Webb at cornerback and Brian Thompson at safety, but the season-ending injury to linebacker Dante Cook will hurt.
George Beerhalter leads a strong defensive line from his tackle position.
Rhode Island (3-8, 2-6) took a step back last year after showing some promise in 2010. Coach Joe Traynor is confident he has the Rams on the right track, even if things will remain difficult in this deep league.
The Rams will be competitive on defense with All-American linebacker Doug Johnson and defensive end James Timmins leading the way. But depth remains a concern.
On offense, the Rams are looking for Bob Bentson to take charge at quarterback, though JC transfer Dan Farley is challenging him. URI must also replace three offensive linemen.
There are also major questions at running back, with Assani Mudimbi the leading candidate. At least the Rams can count on wide receiver Anthony Baskerville and Brandon Johnson-Farrell.
Tight end is a position of strength for Rhode Island with Joe Migliarese and Alex Frazier returning.
Richmond (3-8, 0-8) reached bottom after its senior class experienced four head coaches in their time in the program. There was still plenty of talent left from the Spiders' 2008 championship run, but the resignation of Latrell Scott right before the season after a DUI charge threw the team into chaos.
Danny Rocco, who built Liberty's program from the ground floor up into a top-25 team, has been brought in to reestablish some equilibrium to the Spiders.
It will be tough to turn things around this year, but Rocco is already making strides.
The offense must replace quarterback Aaron Corp and wide receiver Tre Gray, but it still has Kendall Gaskins, a hybrid fullback-tailback. Senior John Laub is looking to establish himself at quarterback.
There is talent on the defensive side of the ball, led by linebacker Darius McMillan, linemen Kerry Wynn and B.J. Scott and Georgia Tech transfer Cooper Taylor in the secondary.
Old Dominion (10-3, 6-2) is gearing itself up for a legitimate FCS title run after reaching the second round in just its third year. It will be the last chance for the current roster to compete in postseason play, with the school switching to Conference USA.
The switch of quarterbacks from injured senior Thomas DeMarco to freshman Taylor Heinicke made a huge difference over the final nine games. Heinicke passed for 2,385 yards and 25 TDs with just one interception.
Heinicke has a deep group of receivers with Nick Mayers, Antonio Vaughan and Larry Pinkard to throw to, while Angus Harper rushed for 633 yards and 10 TDs and Colby Goodwyn added 581 yards and three more scores.
The Monarchs changed defensive coordinators, hiring Bill Dee to improve a poor unit from 2011. He will build around Chris Burnette at defensive tackle and Craig Wilkins at linebacker.
One thing that ODU can count on is its punting game, Jonathan Pllsko is hands down the top punter in FCS and could be booting the ball in the NFL in the future.
Georgia State (3-8, 0-0) will make its first CAA season its last. The Panthers took a step back after going 6-5 in their first season in 2010 and will be hard pressed to compete in the CAA.
This will also be the final year for veteran coach Bill Curry, one of the nice guys of college coaching. The former Alabama, Kentucky and Georgia Tech head man is retiring after the season.
Redshirt freshman Ben McLane has been named the starter at quarterback and will target Danny Williams among a nice group of receivers. Donald Russell is back as the Panthers' leading rusher.
Grant King is the only returning starter on the Georgia State offensive line.
The Panthers struggled on defense last season and hope to find improvement with help from nose guard Terrance Woodard, Kentucky transfer tackle Nermin Delic and linebacker Mark Hogan.
Matt Hubbard had an excellent year punting as a freshman, averaging 41.9 yards per kick.