5 PLAYERS TO WATCH
TYLER HOLMES, MASSACHUSETTS
Sr. | 6-0 | 220 | LB
The Blacksburg resident somehow got out of the state and landed in New England. The preseason Player of the Year on defense is athletic and relentless.
AARON CORP, RICHMOND
Sr. | 6-3 | 205 | QB
The transfer from Southern Cal is fully recovered after missing the last six games of 2010 with a knee injury. A big-time talent.
MATT EVANS, NEW HAMPSHIRE
Jr. | 6-0 | 225 | LB
The tackling machine led the CAA in solo tackles (79) and total stops (156). He finished fourth in the voting for the Buck Buchanan Award.
ANDREW PIERCE, DELAWARE
Soph. | 5-11 | 200 | RB
The preseason Co-Player of the Year on offense, along with W&M's Jon Grimes, led the conference in rushing (1,655), carries (329) and touchdowns (14).
VIDAL NELSON, JAMES MADISON
Sr. | 5-11 | 205 | DB
He's one of the ringleaders of JMU's typically stout defense, which returns 10 starters. He finished third on the team with 70 tackles.
5 GAMES TO WATCH
Old Dominion at Delaware | Sept. 24
The Monarchs' inaugural league game at the 2010 co-champ and NCAA finalist, one of the few places in FCS that draws bigger crowds than ODU.
James Madison at William and Mary | Sept. 24
A conference opener with possible championship implications. Tribe and JMU picked to finish 1-2. Earliest meeting between the rivals since 1995.
New Hampshire vs. Massachusetts | Oct. 22
Traditional rivals will play at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., home to the NFL's Patriots, on UMass' way out the door to FBS. The stadium is likely to dwarf the crowd, but it's still pretty cool to play in a pro ballyard.
Old Dominion at William and Mary | Nov. 12
The Tribe had to battle to win last year's game in Norfolk. ODU personal fouls caused some dyspepsia from the W&M end. ODU concludes its first CAA season, while the Tribe should be pushing for postseason.
Delaware vs. Villanova | Nov. 19
Season-ending rivalry will be played at 18,500-seat PPL Park in nearby Chester, allowing enhanced game day atmosphere for 'Nova fans. Plus, game nearly always figures into title and postseason equation.
RETURN OF THE RUNNING BACK
Look for a renewed emphasis on the rush, at least early in the season. Five of the top seven backs return, while only two of the top eight passers are back. Delaware's Andrew Pierce (1,655 yards) and W&M's Jon Grimes (135 all-purpose yards per game) lead a group that include UMass' Jon Hernandez (938 yards), Maine's Pushawn Brown (654) and New Hampshire's Dontra Peters (707).
JAMES MADISON'S OFFENSE
The Dukes the past two years have been as good defensively as ever, but their offense has stunk on ice, hence consecutive 6-5 records. Head coach Mickey Matthews takes over the play calling and coaching quarterbacks. If they can identify a quarterback — likely junior Justin Thorpe or transfer Billy Cosh (Kansas State) — look for a return to the playoffs.
Latrell Scott is more comfortable and assured in his second season as head coach. But quarterback injuries and offensive line struggles contributed to a 6-5 record, the program's worst since 2006. Now that all of former coach Dave Clawson's players have cycled through, Scott must sink or swim with predecessor Mike London's recruits and his own players.
RHODE ISLAND'S ASCENT
The Rams haven't been a consistent factor since the early '80s, but coach Joe Trainer had them competitive (5-6, 4-4) in his second year. They defeated playoff teams New Hampshire and Villanova and lost three other games by a touchdown or less. With 16 starters back, including the league's top returning passer in Steve Probst, they are capable of an upper-half finish.
The Wildcats lost a ton from teams that won the 2009 national title and went to the 2010 semifinals. Uncertainty about their status — Big East or FCS — cost them a handful of quality recruits. Longtime coach Andy Talley thinks they can be pretty good eventually, when younger players gain experience. The trick is not getting run over and discouraged early.
CAA teams open out-of-conference, where they routinely upset an FBS opponent or two. Most intriguing matchups are William and Mary at Virginia, Delaware at Navy, James Madison at North Carolina, Richmond at Duke.
JMU at William and Mary in conference opener between preseason top two picks; Old Dominion at Delaware in Monarchs' CAA opener; New Hampshire at Richmond; UMass at Boston College.
William and Mary at Villanova, where Tribe has lost five straight and hasn't won since 2000; Richmond at JMU, in CAA home opener at Dukes' expanded palace; UMass at Old Dominion, in Monarchs' CAA home opener.
Villanova at James Madison, two annual contenders; Rhode Island at Maine, two teams aiming for the upper half; New Hampshire at William and Mary, title contenders.
Final regular season Saturday. William and Mary at Richmond, in the 121st meeting; Delaware vs. Villanova in their annual taffy pull; James Madison at UMass, with Dukes angling for playoffs and Minutemen playing spoiler; Maine at New Hampshire, as Wildcats aim for eighth consecutive playoff berth.
If the Dukes improve even a bit on the nation's 101st-ranked scoring offense, 108th-ranked pass offense and 98th-ranked total offense, their stingy defense won't wear down in the fourth quarters and the second half of the season, as happened too often a year ago. The trick is identifying a quarterback, and a retooled offensive line gelling a bit. They always have athletes and ball carriers.
MOST TO PROVE
Consecutive 6-5 seasons won't cut it, not for a program with annual title aspirations and with a shiny new, expanded playpen.
It would look a bit unseemly for the Minutemen to struggle in their final CAA season, since they're planning a move up to the FBS level.
The Monarchs want to prove that they belong and that those gaudy records from the first two seasons weren't papier mache.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun