Everyone is undefeated, a slew of all-conference players return, and Jimmye Laycock is open to suggestion on his quarterback situation.
The Colonial Athletic Association holds its annual preseason football media gabfest Wednesday in Baltimore, flush off of a season in which the league re-established its national chops.
As many as seven teams figure to contend for the championship, led by New Hampshire, Towson and Villanova. Based on recent history and the league's depth and quality, any fewer than three teams in the expanded 24-team FCS playoff field would be a disservice.
William and Mary returns eight starters from one of the nation's best defenses, but the Tribe's fortunes likely hinge on consistent quarterback play. W&M ranked 95th nationally in scoring offense and 96th in pass offense, unusual for a program that routinely showcased quality quarterbacks and dynamic offenses under Laycock.
The Tribe has six quarterbacks on the roster, but the only one with experience, senior Raphael Ortiz, missed the entire 2013 season and much of spring practice due to the effects of shoulder surgery after the 2012 season.
No quarterback issues at, among other places, New Hampshire, Richmond, 'Nova and Delaware. New Hampshire returns two veteran quarterbacks. Villanova has John Robertson, among the nation's leaders in rushing and total offense last season.
Richmond has two University of Virginia transfers. Michael Strauss passed for 3,800 yards and 26 touchdowns last season, sixth nationally in passing. Teammate Michael Rocco transferred from Virginia after the 2012 season, but isn't eligible until this season.
One of the more intriguing quarterback storylines plays out at James Madison, where new coach Everett Withers brought in Georgia Tech transfer Vad Lee, and Dukes' 2013 starter Michael Birdsong departed. Lee started all 13 games for the Yellow Jackets last year, totaling 2,000 yards passing and rushing.
Twelve first-team all-conference players return, and a total of 44 are back from all three teams. The star power on defense includes: William and Mary's trio of linebackers Airek Green and Luke Rhodes, along with defensive end and sacks leader Mike Reilly; Maine linebacker Christophe Mulumba, the Defensive Rookie of the Year; and Towson lineman Ryan Delaire and safety Christian Carpenter.
Primary offensive returners are New Hampshire 1,000-yard receiver R.J. Harris, William and Mary receiver Tre McBride and 1,200-yard rusher Omar Osbourne from Albany, as well as Robertson, Strauss and his freakishly athletic target, Stephen Barnette, who had nearly 1,200 yards in receptions.
Following a couple of sub-par seasons, the CAA reasserted itself nationally. Though only three teams made the FCS playoffs, Towson advanced to the championship game and New Hampshire made the semifinals in its 10th consecutive postseason trip. Both lost to three-time champ North Dakota State.
From 2004-10, CAA teams won three national titles and had three other teams advance to the championship game. Five times during that span, the league had two semifinalists. In 2011 and '12, however, no CAA team advanced past the quarterfinals.
Towson had significant losses on offense, notably All-American running back Terrance West and four-fifths of its line. But running back Darius Victor was the CAA Offensive Rookie of the Year, and head coach Rob Ambrose has put the Tigers in position to contend every year.
Defending champ Maine, which was bounced out of the FCS playoffs by New Hampshire, must rebuild after losing eight starters on offense, notably quarterback Marcus Wasilewski, leading rusher Rickey Stevens and three-fifths of its offensive line. But the Black Bears return eight starters on defense, led by linebackers Mulumba and Cabrinni Goncalves.
Laycock (35 years), Villanova's Andy Talley (29 years) and Maine's Jack Cosgrove (22 years) are among the CAA's coaching fixtures, but the conference welcomes three new head coaches — four, counting CAA newcomer Elon and Rich Skrosky.
Withers at JMU came from Urban Meyer's staff at Ohio State, where he coordinated the Buckeyes' defense. Rhode Island's Jim Fleming was defensive coordinator at Central Florida, which went to the Fiesta Bowl.
Albany's Greg Gattuso was an assistant at Maryland and at Pittsburgh prior to that. He replaced Bob Ford, who started the program and stepped down after 40 years and the Great Danes' first year in the conference.
Fairbank can be reached by phone at 757-247-4637.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun