By Edward Lee
The Baltimore Sun
5:42 PM EDT, July 24, 2013
In some corners of the college football landscape, there are clear divisions within conferences between the haves and the have nots. That is not the case in the Colonial Athletic Association, where six teams have finished atop the league in six seasons.
That history suggests that all 11 teams in the league have a legitimate shot at the conference title and the automatic invitation to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
"You can say of the SEC, there are teams that just don't believe they have a shot. In our conference, the parity is so even," Towson coach Rob Ambrose said Wednesday at the CAA's media day at M&T Bank Stadium. "If you don't bring your 'A' game every week and you don't train that way to bring your 'A' game every week, in our league no one looks past a game. We never look to next week ever, or else you will get your face beat in this week. And that's what you want. You want to be challenged by the best week in and week out, and that's how you become the best."
The departure of Old Dominion (11-2 overall and 7-1 in the league last season), which will be an independent before making the leap to the Football Bowl Subdivision level for the 2014 season, has created a void at the top of the CAA. (Despite finishing with the best record in the conference last season, the Monarchs weren't eligible to win its official championship because of their impending defection.)
Villanova (8-4, 6-2) was picked by league coaches and sports information directors to finish first in the conference this year, with Towson (7-4, 6-2), New Hampshire (8-4, 6-2) and Richmond (8-3, 6-2) — all of whom split the CAA crown with the Wildcats last year — predicted to finish second, third and fourth, respectively.
Towson became the first team in league history to either win or share outright conference titles two years in a row, but Villanova coach Andy Talley said every team should feel optimistic about their chances this season.
"I like the fact that it's competitive and all of us — at one time or another — have the ability to win the whole thing, which speaks to the competitiveness of the league," said Talley, who guided the Wildcats to the FCS national championship in 2009. "And that makes it exciting week in and week out and year in and year out rather than having a team like Ohio State that is always winning it or is pretty close. Our league is super exciting to watch."
Programs like Delaware, Maine and Rhode Island have never won a league title, but they can take solace from the example set by Richmond. After losing to all eight conference opponents and going just 3-8 in 2011, the Spiders soundly rebuked their No. 9 preseason ranking last year.
"I think it speaks volumes for the depth of the league and the difficulty in being able to sustain a consistent model of winning," Richmond coach Danny Rocco said. "There are so many variables that come into play, and I think ultimately what it speaks on is that there is little to no margin for error. A lot of leagues aren't necessarily like that. You can overcome an upset within the league or you can overcome a home loss that you could've, should've beat. So the team that does win the league really did have a special year."
Old Dominion and Georgia State have been replaced by Albany and Stony Brook, but don't expect the newcomers to play nice. Albany went 9-2 overall and 7-1 in the Northeast Conference last season, missing out on a fourth postseason appearance because of tiebreakers that awarded the league championship and automatic invitation to Wagner.
Stony Brook went 10-3 and 5-1 to capture the Big South crown, and the Seawolves knocked out Villanova, 20-10, in the first round of the playoffs.
The conference's strength means there are few games that can be viewed as breathers, and Ambrose joked that he would have a fuller head of hair and sleep easier at night if there were some easy opponents on the schedule.
"When I took the job, I started researching the history of the league, and I called my wife and said, 'We can make it to the playoffs and win a national championship before we ever win a conference title,'" he recalled. "It's just too damn hard."
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