ODU prepares for first season in CAA

Phase Three of the grand experiment known as Old Dominion football commences in less than six weeks, and no one is more eager to begin or less certain about its outcome than Bobby Wilder.

The head Monarch is justifiably optimistic, based on results of phases one and two. But ODU jumps into the deep end of the pool in its first season as a full-on, competing member of the Colonial Athletic Association.

"People should expect the unexpected," Wilder said with a chuckle Wednesday at the CAA's preseason media day, "because I honestly have no idea. I'm taking the same position as I took going into 2009, when I was asked how do you think you'll do. I have no idea how we'll do."

Wilder voted the Monarchs last in the coaches' preseason poll, not because he's sandbagging, but because he knows the league. Wins over VMI and Monmouth are nice, but he requires evidence before judging his team to be a viable member of the nation's best Football Championship Subdivision conference.

"The message is different this year," Wilder said. "There's a greater sense of urgency. I've told the players that you need to approach each week with the idea that you're playing a team that can embarrass you if you're not prepared."

The Monarchs have demonstrated that they can do infrastructure and interest. Facilities are first-rate. Foreman Field is filled every Saturday. It remains to be seen, however, if they can play top-shelf FCS football. Not just weekly, but annually.

"I feel like we'll come in and be competitive, no matter what," defensive tackle Ronnie Cameron said. "I can't necessarily give you the record we'll have, but I feel like week in and week out, we'll give each (opponent) our best, and we'll see where it falls at the end."

True Blue believers point to last season's William and Mary game as proof that the Monarchs are ready. They pushed the eventual CAA champs to the limit before falling 21-17 on a late touchdown.

But emotionally, that was a bowl game for ODU in a season in which its notable challenges were judiciously spaced.

The Monarchs defeated Hampton, an upper-tier MEAC team, largely because the Pirates' punt protection unit took a siesta. They surrendered a thousand points and a million yards to a nationally-ranked Cal Poly team that did what few FCS teams do: traveled cross country for a regular season game.

Winning records and gaudy statistics from a start-up program mean little within a conference that's produced four of the past eight national champions and sent 18 teams to the playoffs in the last four seasons.

Still, CAA coaches believe they are looking at a contender in the league's newest competing member. James Madison's Mickey Matthews and Richmond's Latrell Scott used the same phrase: "A force to be reckoned with."

"I think they'll have a very, very good program," William and Mary coach Jimmye Laycock said. "They've got a lot of support, a lot of interest. There's no reason why they wouldn't have a very good program. I think they'll be very competitive this year. They've got a lot of good players."

Maine's Jack Cosgrove, Wilder's boss for 17 years before he got the ODU gig, watched video of the Monarchs last season in preparing for W&M and came away impressed.

"I know he knows how to coach, I know he knows how to motivate players, I know he knows how to recruit, because I saw him do it with us," Cosgrove said. "I would suspect that the opportunity in a mid-Atlantic environment, where football is more important than it is in New England, that environment will lead to greater competition and greater levels of success."

Wilder would like to think so, as well, but he is well aware of the challenges. How will the Monarchs fare during one of the brutal three- or four-week obstacle courses that every CAA team faces? How will they respond to a losing streak? How will they react the week following a signature win? How will they deal with inevitable injuries?

"We respect this league," Cameron said, "but at the end of the day, we can't let the reputation and level of a particular conference force you out of a championship. That's what you're here for.

"No team comes into the league saying, 'I want to be OK,' or 'I want to be a .500 team.' We're chasing a championship and a spot in the playoffs."

ODU plays 11 consecutive weeks, the last eight against CAA teams, beginning with national finalist Delaware on Sept. 24. The Monarchs close against Villanova, JMU, Richmond and the Tribe.

"To predict where we'll be, I have no idea," Wilder repeated. "Expect the unexpected. If we're healthy, I think we can compete. I think we can have a successful season, I think we can have a winning season — if we're healthy. If not, it could be a long year."

Dave Fairbank can be reached at 247-4637 or by e-mail at dfairbank@dailypress.com. Read his blog at dailypress.com/fromthetarpit. Follow him on Twitter at FairbankDP.

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