The CAA Has Become the SEC of the FCS
It's a league that has seven teams ranked in the top 25 of the most recent poll -- three in the top four -- and one of its members was on the winning end of the upset of the year.
Take into account the long list of successful alums in the NFL and you can make a good argument this is the most successful conference in the country.
Ladies and gentleman, meet the Colonial Athletic Association.
"I never would have thought it would come so far as it has," John O'Connor, who covers the Richmond Spiders and the CAA for the Richmond Times-Dispatch said. "I never thought that the FCS schools could again challenge good FBS programs on a regular basis, but clearly they have."
The CAA football conference, which rose out of the ashes of Atlantic 10 football, was formed in 2007, but its members have dominated the FCS landscape for most of the decade. Now, if you are saying, "That's nice, but let's talk about college football's big boys," you are falling right into the same trap as Virginia Tech earlier this season and one North Carolina could fall into Saturday if it isn't careful.
To the casual football fan, James Madison's win over the Hokies last month was either a shock or a fluke, but those thwho at follow the CAA could see the league's teams building toward such an upset. It marked only the second time an FCS team had defeated a ranked FBS squad.
William and Mary, ranked No. 2 in this week's FCS poll, heads to UNC this weekend and, at this point, if the Tribe knocks off the Tar Heels it should hardly be considered a shock.
"I told our coaches when we got together for the first time four years ago that we were going to take the position as a conference that we're the best FCS league in the country," CAA commissioner Tom Yeager said. "And we are going to behave and act like it in everything we do. When you have the success that our teams have had, then we've backed up whatever the catchy marketing phrase for the year may be."
Since its debut as a football conference, the CAA has become increasingly competitive with the FBS programs it has faced. That first season the league scored minor upsets with New Hampshire beating Marshall and Delaware taking down Navy, but for the most part even the CAA's best teams served as punching-bags-for-hire to BCS conference opponents.
But in the early weeks of the 2009 season, the CAA made it clear it was nobody's patsy. William and Mary and Richmond went on the road and took it to ACC opponents -- the Tribe beat Virginia 26-14 and the Spiders topped Duke 24-16. Villanova beat cross-town rival Temple and Massachusetts held Kansas State scoreless in three quarters and almost came from behind before falling to the Wildcats 21-17.
The CAA made an even bigger splash this season with JMU's defeat of then-No. 13 Virginia Tech and UMass's upset bid at Michigan falling short thanks only to a Heisman-worthy performance by the Wolverines' Denard Robinson.
The past two seasons, the conference's top programs -- Richmond, Delaware, JMU, William and Mary, UMass, New Hampshire and Villanova -- are 5-8 against FBS teams, but every loss has been competitive and all the games have been on the road. New Hampshire is 3-1 against FBS teams since 2007, losing to Pitt this year but knocking off Ball State, Army and Marshall the previous seasons.
"We've had four wins (against FBS teams) last year and we had the granddaddy of them this year with JMU's victory over Virginia Tech," Yeager said. "I wouldn't want to line up against them 11 times during the course of the season because that's when the depth issues start coming into play. But the difference might not be as great as some might perceive."
Without budgets that rival NASA -- Virginia spends approximately $50 million per year more than William and Mary on athletics, but couldn't beat the Tribe in the last meeting -- and with fewer scholarships at its disposal, the CAA has crept up on college football's big boys and established depth and dominance on its level that rivals what the SEC has done to the FBS.
"It's kind of mind-boggling when we look at how many good teams are left on our schedule," JMU coach Mickey Matthews said. "The league is that good. The league is that tough."
The league is that chock-full of good players. While FBS teams have 85 scholarships at their disposal, FCS programs get only 63, but the FCS programs do have one built-in advantage. Transfers from FBS programs don't have to sit out a year after enrolling, and that's brought players who were once among the top-rated recruits in the country to the CAA.
Three years after Pittsburgh transfer Joe Flacco graduated from Delaware and went on to NFL fame, the Blue Hens are once again led by a star quarterback from a BCS school. Pat Devlin was rated as the No. 5 pro-style QB in the nation when he signed with Penn State in 2006, but transferred to Delaware after failing to win the starting job in Happy Valley.
Richmond also landed a top QB prospect this year when former Southern California backup Aaron Corp -- the No. 3 dual-threat QB recruit in his class three years ago -- transferred to the Spiders. A knee injury knocked Corp out for the season earlier this month, but he should be back next fall. When William and Mary arrives in Chapel Hill, the Tribe will bring back quarterback Mike Paulus, who three years ago was a prized recruit for the Tar Heels, ranked as the No. 4 pro-style QB in his high school class.
UMass has had great success integrating transfers. The Minutemen have eight former FBS players on the roster, including left tackle Nick Speller, linebacker Nick Mele and wide receiver Dan Sheeran, all starters who began their careers at Syracuse.
"We're always open to finding the best kids that are going to help UMass football," Minutemen coach Kevin Morris said. "Character is a big issue for us. We want to fully vet each kid and make sure we got the kid we want in the program, in the locker room and on campus. And obviously, athletically does he fit a need for us and does he make us better? All these guys want to come in and play right away."
Of course, most of the players in the league were overlooked by the big schools all along, yet many have turned out to be stars. Former William and Mary quarterback R.J. Archer played high school football just three miles from Virginia's campus, but wasn't offered a scholarship by the Cavs. When he finally got his opportunity to play at Scott Stadium, he led the Tribe to victory against his hometown team.
This season, the league's leading rusher is Delaware freshman Andrew Pierce, who received just one scholarship offer coming out of New Jersey's Cumberland Regional High School. Likewise for New Hampshire senior defensive back and Pennsylvania product Dino Vasso, who leads the CAA with five interceptions and six pass breakups.
The conference's geography plays a role in helping land so-called "best-of-the-rest" recruits.
"Every other part of the country, except where the CAA's footprint is, has a (non-automatic qualifying BCS) conference," former Richmond coach Dave Clawson told the Times-Dispatch last year. "If you're in California and you're not a Pac-10 player, you've got the WAC. If you're in Texas or Arizona and you're not a Big 12 player, you've got Conference USA and you've got the Mountain West. If you are in the midwest and you're not a Big Ten player, you've got the MAC. If you're in the south and you're not an ACC or an SEC player, you have the Sun Belt Conference and Conference USA. If you go Maine all the way down to Virginia, if you're not a Big East player, regionally, the next-best conference is the CAA."
Yeager said that teams in his conference are also helped by their experience in a college football playoff system. After years of fighting each other for spots in the FCS tournament and then advancing to the final in most seasons, CAA teams enter their games with confidence.
"With a little bit of luck and some poise down the stretch,you can sneak up and get a victory against an FBS opponent," he said.
But they aren't sneaking up on anybody any more. Scheduling has become much more difficult for CAA teams after recent upsets. JMU officials have said that some FBS teams broke off negotiations for upcoming games after the Dukes beat Virginia Tech.
"There are some teams, not ACC teams, that called us and said they didn't want to play us," Matthews said. "All of us have had our moments where we played good against them. If they had their druthers, they would probably admit in their private moments that some of us are not their No. 1 choice."
But despite it all, Matthews said he still thinks it's possible for major conference schools to overlook the CAA, especially from the players' perspective.
"I don't think any of them are nervous to play us," Matthews said. "Now the coaches would be, but I think if you took a vote of their players it would be 60-0 they are not nervous to play us. William and Mary has a good team and they will get after North Carolina like we were going to get after Tech. But I don't know how many ACC teams are nervous about playing any of us. I don't think those teams shudder in their boots to play us or William and Mary or any I-AA team."
Perhaps they should.