Tuesday marks CAA Media Day, which (kind of) signals the beginning of JMU football’s 2018 season. The Dukes haven’t lost a conference game under head coach Mike Houston, and everyone expects JMU to be the preseason pick to win the conference again in 2018. While the Dukes are the CAA favorite, several other squads should make a legitimate run at the conference crown. Ahead of CAA Media Day, I share my thoughts on where each team stands headed into the start of the season.
The Dukes lead the pack for numerous reasons. Defensively, JMU’s secondary could be one of the nation’s best. Corners Rashad Robinson and Jimmy Moreland both have the potential to earn a spot on NFL rosters next year and should make it difficult for opposing wide receivers to reach their statistical averages. I’d expect very few receivers to crack 100 yards receiving against the Dukes.
Darrious and Ron’Dell Carter create a fearsome defensive line. If unproven yet talented players like John Daka live up to the hype, the defensive line could outperform last year’s group.
Ben DiNucci and Cole Johnson hope to earn the starting quarterback gig for the Dukes. After losing Bryan Schor to graduation, the quarterback position becomes one of the biggest question marks for the Dukes. There’s no guarantee that either DiNucci or Johnson play up to Schor’s level, but with the depth the Dukes possess at running back, they might not need to. Riley Stapleton and David Eldridge give the eventual quarterback two solid receiving options. The team’s depth at tight end helps make up for a lack of experience at the wide receiver position outside of Stapleton and Eldridge.
2. New Hampshire
A staple in the postseason, this is one of New Hampshire’s best teams in recent memory. The Wildcats return their leading passer, rusher, receiver and tackler in 2018. The offense, led by quarterback Trevor Knight, has the potential to be particularly scary. Senior wide receiver Neil O’Connor averaged just under 100 yards receiver per game last season, and figures to be just as dynamic this year.
On defense, linebacker Dean Quinlen returns. The 230-pound beast tallied 124 tackles in 2017. The team also returns Jae’Wuan Horton, who totaled 8.5 sacks last year.
With playmakers on both sides of the ball and six home games, including five of their last seven contests, the Wildcats have a legitimate chance to challenge JMU for the CAA title. If New Hampshire plays up to its potential, the Dukes will have a very hard time winning on December 3.
Danny Rocco brought a breath of fresh air to a program in need of some energy. Despite abysmal offensive showings in 2017, Delaware finished the season 7-4 and a borderline playoff team. This season, the Blue Hens have a legitimate shot to make a run at a CAA and national title.
Linebacker Troy Reeder headlines the team’s ferocious defense. Reeder, a Penn State transfer, recorded 89 tackles last season and earned First Team All-CAA honors. He’s an NFL prospect with great size, instincts and leadership ability. There’s no doubt the defense has the pieces around Reeder to once again remain among the conference’s elite, but can the Blue Hens score enough points to win a CAA title?
We should get a feel for whether the Blue Hens are actually a national title contender when they head to Fargo to take on North Dakota State on Sept. 22. That’s a must-watch game for any CAA football fan.
Look for that game to be a turning point in Delaware’s season. I don’t see the Blue Hens winning, but with a bye week following the showdown, the Blue Hens will be able to regroup with newfound knowledge about how they compare to the best team in the country. Delaware will look completely different when the postseason comes around compared to when they play the Bison on Sept. 22.
A 5-6 record is not what the doctor ordered in Mark Ferrante’s first season as the head coach. Despite the sub .500 mark, Villanova was a good football team. The Wildcats nearly won a game over FBS opponent Temple, they were in the game against JMU until the fourth quarter, and they started the season 4-2 before running into a tough slate of games and a handful of unfortunate injuries.
I like Villanova’s 2018 schedule with both JMU and New Hampshire travelling to Pennsylvania. I like the team’s steady defense and the return of quarterback Zach Bednarczyk. If he stays healthy, expect Villanova to contend for a CAA title and playoff berth.
Losing Kyle Lauletta hurts, but Kevin Johnson offers a ton of potential at the quarterback position. Expect him to contribute immediately to an offense that boasts arguably the nation’s best receiving corps. The Spiders won’t be perfect, but an explosive passing offense will keep Richmond in almost every game it plays.
Additionally, Richmond’s schedule is favorable as it doesn’t face New Hampshire and it hosts JMU, Delaware and Villanova. I think Richmond makes a legitimate run at a playoff berth under second-year head coach Russ Huesman.
Screenshot of 2017 CAA standings from CAAsports.com.
The Great Danes luck out as they avoid both JMU and Villanova this season, but do face Delaware and New Hampshire in consecutive weeks late in the season. With a manageable home slate and the return of running back Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks from a 2017 leg injury, Albany finds itself in a perfect position to achieve a winning season. Don’t expect Albany to win the CAA, but the Great Danes won’t be a push over.
I have my doubts about Elon. While I like what the Phoenix did last year (8-4, third in the CAA), I’m not so sure they’ll be able to replicate 2017’s success. Despite winning eight games, Elon allowed more points than it scored and didn’t win a single game by more than eight points. Quarterback Davis Cheek has potential heading into his sophomore campaign, but I think Elon will struggle to find the same level of success this season against an improved CAA, especially from Sept. 29 – Oct. 20.
8. Stony Brook
Quarterback Joe Carbone returns following dramatic improvement in last year’s junior campaign. After throwing five touchdowns to 20 interceptions in his first two seasons, Carbone tossed 23 touchdowns to just eight interceptions (five came against JMU) all of last year.
Defensively, senior linebacker Shayne Lawless leads the way. He’s a solid tackler in the middle of the Stony Brook defense. Defensive lineman John Haggart is another impact player on the defensive side of the ball, which is where Stony Brook excels.
I like the Seawolves, but Carbone isn’t an elite quarterback, and his career completion percentage of 54 gives me pause. Factor in a tough schedule, and I don’t see Stony Brook making the postseason in 2018.
9. Rhode Island
Rhode Island continues to steadily improve. Offensively, the Rams return star receiver Aaron Parker and have two senior quarterbacks with playing experience last season. Senior linebacker Justin Hogan anchors a defense that performed better last season after a horrendous 2016.
Head coach Jim Fleming is slowly steadying the ship. Don’t expect URI to contend for a CAA title, but the team could make a run at 5-7 wins if a few breaks go the Rams’ way.
Running back Josh Mack carried the Black Bears in 2017. The team, which relied on steady defense and a heavy dose of Mack, now has to adjust to Mack’s transfer to Liberty. This is a huge blow to a team already relegated to the lower tier of the CAA. Look for Maine to struggle mightily in 2018.
Towson’s schedule is brutal. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Ryan Stover showed flashes last season, but he did fire 13 interceptions to his 11 touchdowns. Don’t expect Stover to be handed the starting job without competition. The team lacked offense last season, and I expect them to fall behind a rapidly improving conference. With its schedule, winning more than three games will be an accomplishment.
12. William & Mary
Sophomore quarterback Shon Mitchell could be special. Unfortunately, William & Mary went 0-8 in the CAA last season and won just two games overall. The conference didn’t get any worse, and teams without a steady quarterback presence are going to struggle in 2018. Mitchell is a year away from taking his game to the next level. Until they show otherwise, the Tribe starts the year at No. 12 in the CAA Power Rankings.