2021 Local FCS Preview: Alphabet soup

If you thought the COVID-19 pandemic turned the worlds of the local football programs upside-down, at least Maryland and Navy were able to play last fall. Howard was limited to a pair of games in 2021 while Georgetown’s entire season was scrapped. Other local schools were able to compete in the spring and James Madison qualified for the FCS Playoffs (how about that, a college football playoff with automatic qualifiers and at-large schools?!) before falling to eventual National Champion Sam Houston State. And that’s where we begin with our look of local FCS programs, the class of the Colonial Athletic Association and as close to a college football dynasty as you’ll get within driving distance of Washington: Harrisonburg, Virginia, is two hours from the Key Bridge and the Dukes are 15-4 in the Playoffs since 2016.

James Madison (7-1, 3-0 CAA, loss in FCS Semifinals) begins the fall ranked No. 2 and is favored to win the conference. Curt Cignetti in two seasons has yet to lose a conference game and has directed the Dukes to a pair of FCS Final Fours. He returns the preseason CAA Offensive Player of the Year in running back Percy Agyei-Obese (741 and 8 touchdowns in 7 games this past spring) as well as the league’s preseason Defensive Player of the Year in lineman Mike Greene (3 sacks after 7.5 as a sophomore). JMU led the conference in rushing and passing last spring while finishing second in scoring defense, and they also boast the league’s best placekicker and top punter. October will let us know how good this team as they visit New Hampshire (the last CAA team to beat JMU), host No. 16 Villanova, and visit Richmond (also receiving votes) before traveling to No. 5 Delaware.

Richmond (3-1, all games in CAA) was picked to finish fourth in the conference but was ranked 22nd in the coaches poll. The Spiders haven’t reached the Playoffs since a run of six trips in ten years from 2017-16, but Coach Russ Huesman returns all 22 starters from last year. Quarterback Joe Mancuso enters his third season as the starter (he also started four games in 2018) and has weapons at his disposal from tailback Aaron Dykes to tight end John Fitzgerald, but defense is where this team will make the difference if they’re going to make a run: linebacker Tristan Wheeler led the CAA with 9.5 tackles per game last spring, while defensive lineman Kobie Turner and linebacker Tyler Dressler also received preseason honors. The Spiders begin the year by hosting Howard and visit Virginia Tech to wrap up September.

William & Mary (1-2, all games in CAA) enters year three under Head Coach Mike London who won an FCS National Championship at Richmond and also guided Howard to a 7-4 season in 2017. It’s taken a while to establish a foundation in Williamsburg but 10 offensive starters and 7 defensive starters return, most notably quarterback Hollis Mathis. After starting as a true freshman in 2019, Mathis led the CAA in total yards this past spring. The question is can the Tribe’s defense that returns seven starters continue to make strides (they allowed the fourth fewest passing yards and points in the conference this past spring) despite playing just three games over the last 24 months. The good news is Towson, James Madison, and Richmond come to Zable Stadium this fall.

Towson (2020 season canceled) after not suiting up this past spring will try to post a winning record for the third straight season for the first time since 2013, when Coach Rob Ambrose led the program to the FCS National Championship Game. Ambrose re-arms after the departure of two-year starter Tom Flacco at quarterback, bringing in Liberty transfer Chris Ferguson who before suiting up for the Flames played at Maine. As a Black Bear Ferguson played for a CAA title team in 2018 and threw for 401 yards against Towson the following fall. Four of the top six receivers from 2019 return, while the Tigers leading returning rusher Aaron Speight has all of 43 career yards rushing. Towson plays three of their first four games on the road but doesn’t face top 20 CAA teams Delaware or Villanova.

Georgetown (2020 season canceled) already has canceled the Sept. 4 game with Marist as the team had a COVID-19 related pause during training camp which hampered practice and conditioning. The Hoyas were picked to finish sixth in a seven-team Patriot League and haven’t had a winning record since 2011. But, their 4-2 conference mark in 2018 was their best since joining the league and the nine players placed on the All-Patriot League team in 2019 was an all-time high for the Hoyas. Fifth year senior Joseph Brunell (son of former Washington NFL quarterback Mark Brunell) completed 62% of his passes in 2019 and will benefit by getting three of his top five receivers back plus the team’s top two ground-gainers. The defense has had two years to think about their less than stellar finish that saw the Hoyas allow an average of 24 points over the team’s 0-4 finish.

Morgan State (2020 season canceled) bookends its year against a pair of teams that didn’t play last year, starting the season at home against Towson while wrapping up against Georgetown. The Bears were picked to finish fifth in the MEAC after one rough stretch for the program (only 15 wins over five straight losing seasons since making the FCS Playoffs in 2014. Head Coach Tyrone Wheatley enters his second season with a few pieces in place: second-leading rusher Jabriel Johnson averaged 4.8 yards per carry and and his third year with the program hoping this team can build on their 3-9 showing. Second-leading rusher Jabriel Johnson (4.8 yards per carry) is back as is the team’s second-leading receiver from 2019 (Wesley Wolfolk averaged 17.5 yards per catch). He’s got a completely new defensive nucleus to put together this fall and they might come together by the time they face the Hoyas, there very well could me some major growing pains against the Tigers.

Howard (0-2, both games in MEAC) was picked to finish last in the MEAC and while Head Coach Larry Scott did benefit from having a pair of games he’s still building the Bison foundation after the disastrous Ron Prince season where the Head Coach resigned after being placed on administrative leave due to allegations of verbal abuse. He does return starting quarterback Quinton Williams who also led the team in rushing yards per game as well as running back Jarett Hunter who led the team in receiving yards. Sophomore defensive lineman Deion Harry led the team in sacks and tackles this past spring. The Bison begin with back to back road trips to Richmond and Maryland before facing longtime rival Hampton at Audi Field on Sept. 18.

Other Football Previews

Dave Preston

Dave has been in the D.C. area for 10 years and in addition to working at WTOP since 2002 has also been on the air at Westwood One/CBS Radio as well as Red Zebra Broadcasting (Redskins Network).

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