The Towson football team is more than six months removed from its 35-7 loss to North Dakota State in the Football Championship Subdivision title game, but one thing remains the same. Much as they were in the week leading up to that national final, the Tigers say they are underdogs heading into the 2014 season.
That was reaffirmed Wednesday at the Colonial Athletic Association's football Media Day at M&T Bank Stadium, where Towson was picked to finish fifth in the conference and did not receive any of the 24 first-place votes from the league's coaches and communications personnel. New Hampshire was voted as the top team in the league, followed by Villanova, Richmond and William and Mary.
"I really think we're the underdogs this year since we lost a lot of talented players," said Towson senior wide receiver Spencer Wilkins. "If anything, I think we might be the underdogs in the CAA."
The Tigers' predicted slide is not terribly surprising after they graduated starters at almost every position, including quarterback, running back and all five members of the offensive line. Running back Terrance West, who set FCS records with 2,509 rushing yards and 42 total touchdowns in 2013, was drafted in the third round by the Cleveland Browns.
"Early in the summer, I laid in bed and thought, 'Five linemen, one tight end, one wideout, one tailback, the quarterback — my God, who's left?'" Towson coach Rob Ambrose said. "… But it's not like we haven't been coaching the rest of the guys, too. There's going to be a learning curve, and there's going to be an experiential curve.
"The guys on the offensive line that are going to play, they haven't played four quarters of football in a game, and they have to learn how to do that and to do that successfully. They've been well-coached, they've been well-trained, and if you ask the guys that graduated, the guys behind them may not have been as experienced, but they have more talent and are just younger. So what happens in the first month of the season is really going to play a big part in whether we have success at the end of the year. How fast can these guys grow up in football games?"
The cupboard is not entirely bare. Senior defensive end Ryan Delaire, senior cornerback Tye Smith and junior safety Christian Carpenter were named to the CAA's preseason All-Conference defense, and junior fullback Emmanuel Holder was selected to the offense. The Tigers also return Wilkins and sophomore outside linebacker Bryton Barr, who suffered injuries that forced them to miss last year's run through the playoffs.
And Ambrose is hopeful of developing some freshmen from a promising recruiting class.
"When we took the job, you had to travel farther to find people that didn't have preconceived, negative connotations of what Towson football was," said Ambrose, who signed a contract extension this offseason that runs through 2020. "We did that, but we also found local kids that believed in our dreams. Heck, now everybody wants to be a part of this. Kids don't want to go out of state. Kids don't want to go to Maryland. They want to come to Towson, and now it's been turning guys away and being much more selective. It's a great thing for the school, and it's a great thing for the city. I don't want to sound trite, but it's a hell of a time to be a Tiger."
The team's success has also benefited the university. Roy Brown, senior associate athletics director in charge of marketing communications, estimated that the football program's total revenue from sources such as ticket sales, licensing and corporate sponsorship doubled in 2013. Brown also estimated that the number of students on campus wearing school-related gear went from one in eight in October to one in three in March.
Much of that can be traced to the football team's march to the FCS title game, which is not a topic of discussion among the players. But Smith, a nominee for the Buck Buchanan Award, given to the top defensive player in the FCS, said he and his teammates still remember the pain of that loss to North Dakota State.
"We have the same motivation as last year, and we have the same hunger as we did last year," he said. "We might even have more hunger because we didn't finish the way we wanted to last year."
Both Wilkins and Smith shrugged off the fifth-place ranking in the CAA preseason poll. But Wilkins, an Ellicott City native and Mount Hebron graduate, said the team would use it to its benefit.
"It's just motivation," he said. "And we like playing with a chip on our shoulders. Adversity is nothing new to us."
CAA Predicted order of finish
(first-place votes in parentheses)
1. New Hampshire (15)
2. Villanova (2)
3. Richmond (3)
4. William and Mary (3)
8. James Madison (1)
9. Stony Brook
11. Rhode Island
Preseason Offensive Player of the Year: John Robertson, Villanova quarterback
Preseason Defensive Player of the Year: Mike Reilly, William and Mary defensive lineman
Towson players on Preseason All-Conference Team: Fullback Emmanuel Holder, defensive lineman Ryan Delaire, safety Christian Carpenter, cornerback Tye Smith.
Predicted order of finish and preseason All-CAA voted on by the conference's head coaches and communications personnel.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun