WASHINGTON — It seems the NCAA gets paid by the character with the unwieldy “Division I Football Championship Subdivision,” formerly known as I-AA, which returns for another underrated fall in the D.C. area.
William & Mary, Richmond and James Madison each occupy spots in the Coaches Preseason Top 25, while Towson also receives votes. Georgetown and Howard? We’ll get to that in a bit.
Richmond (10-4 & 6-2 in the CAA; National Semifinal loss to North Dakota State) — The Spiders were ranked 4th nationally in the preseason and boast 16 returning starters. Junior quarterback Kyle Lauletta (3598 yards passing) and senior wide receiver Brian Brown return to terrorize another set of secondaries, and the defense has just as much talent percolating with senior safety David Jones coming back from an All-American season where he tallied nine interceptions. Coach Danny Rocco’s team could very well go into Charlottesville Saturday and ruin Virginia’s season opener; November will provide a pair of tough tests with games against James Madison as well as William & Mary.
William & Mary (9-4 with a 6-2 CAA record; Second round loss at Richmond) — The 10th ranked Tribe bring back 16 starters as well, most importantly senior runningback Kendell Anderson (1418 yards & 16 TD in 2015). They also operate under the sure hand of coach Jimmye Laycock who starts his 37th season at the helm. Not only has he won the CAA twice, but he has also led W & M to conference titles in leagues that no longer compete in football (Atlantic 10) or in general (Yankee). His sure hand showed in an offensive line that allowed the fewest sacks and a team that committed the least amount of penalties in the CAA. The Tribe visits JMU in early October and finishes the regular season with the double-whammy of Towson and Richmond.
James Madison (9-3, 6-2 in the league; a Second round loss to Colgate) — The Dukes begin the season ranked 11th in the coaches’ poll. Seventeen starters return as Mike Houston comes to Harrisonburg from the Citadel. The Dukes are still smarting from a season where they started 7-0 before allowing 39 points per game the rest of the way. The one-two punch of runningbacks Cardon Johnson and Khalid Abdalallah (the two ranked 4th and 5th in the CAA in rushing last year) returns while the quarterback question is still not completely answered. Bryan Schor? Connor Mitch? Both names sound like they should be playing for University of Virginia — or working at Vineyard Vines. Houston hopes to infuse the Dukes’ D with a little of what helped the Citadel rank second in the Southern Conference in stopping the run and defensive pass efficiency. JMU faces its Commonwealth brethren a month apart — and doesn’t have to face Towson this fall.
Towson (7-4 and 5-3 in the CAA; missing the playoffs) — The Tigers actually were rated 24th in the STATS FCS Top 25 Preseason Poll. The 2015 edition bounced back from a 2-3 start to post a winning record for the fourth time in five years under coach Rob Ambrose. His history with the school has been more of a boom and bust; from 3-19 his first two seasons to 29-10 (and two playoff appearances) the next three, followed by 11-12 the last two. If the pendulum swings back, it will be thanks to the feet of Darius Victor (1059 yards and 15 TD’s rushing in 2015) and a defense that boasts pass rusher Zain Harps Ushur (4 sacks last fall) and senior linebacker Jordan Myatt (11.5 of his 60 tackles last year were for losses). After a September bye week, the Tigers begin a gauntlet that starts in Richmond Oct. 1 and ends against William & Mary Nov. 12.
Georgetown (4-7, 2-4 Patriot League) — Their team enters year three under Rob Sgarlata. His first two campaigns on the hilltop saw the Hoyas win one more game than the previous season. This fall, he’ll have a new quarterback in Tim Barnes, and that might be a good thing because even though Kyle Nolan tossed twice as many touchdowns as interceptions, the Hoyas still finished last in the Patriot League in passing efficiency. Will Barnes be an upgrade or a step back? At least he’ll have steady targets in wide receiver Justin Hill (46 catches and a team-high 6 TD’s last fall) and Preseason All-Patriot League tight end Matt Buckman. The defense will be anchored by sophomore safety Jethro Francois, but will hinge on how senior Phil Novacki (a team-high 4 sacks in 2015) and the D-line get to the quarterback. This fall the Hoyas face three Ivy League schools (including Harvard on a Friday night) and were picked to finish last in the Patriot League — just a whisker behind Lafayette.
Howard (1-10, 1-7 MEAC) — This team looks to bounce back from a nightmare season where four of their losses were one-possession affairs. This year doesn’t look much better for the Bison on the outset as they’ve been picked to finish 10th in the 11-team MEAC (how Delaware State gets one first place vote yet finishes 9th in the preseason poll is beyond me). Can coach Gary Harrell rely on quarterback Kalen Johnson effectively to lead the spread offense this fall? The junior showed flashes last year (4 touchdown passes and a scoring run against Savannah State), but still completed only 56 percent of his passes despite throwing a ton of short stuff (10.6 yards per completed pass). Senior Toree Boyd is the linchpin of the offensive line. Redshirt senior Jalen Day (70 tackles and 1.5 sacks in 2015) is expected to lead the defense again this fall. The schedule begins with games at Maryland and Rutgers … less than ideal.
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