Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - No longer holding the reputation as the biggest, baddest conference on the FCS block, CAA Football hopes to return to an elite level in 2013.
CAA coaches expect the conference to be stronger, and the conference will challenge again to have the most FCS playoff teams. The question is, will a great team emerge from a group of really good programs (Villanova, Towson, James Madison, New Hampshire, Richmond, Delaware, Maine, Stony Brook).
Villanova and Towson are the leading candidates.
Albany and Stony Brook come aboard as Old Dominion and Georgia State depart, keeping the conference at 11 teams. In joining from smaller conferences, the two newcomers will find it hard to overcome a steady diet of CAA opponents.
It's the year of the running game across the CAA. The top nine rushers, which includes quarterbacks John Robertson of Villanova and Justin Thorpe of James Madison, return. Plus, Stony Brook's bulldozer Marcus Coker arrives with an excellent offensive line.
Oops, somebody inform Richmond it's the year of the running game. The Spiders return Ben Edwards (80 receptions) and Stephen Barnette (56), and bring in former Cornell standout wide receiver Shane Savage.
The early season schedule sets up for a good start to the Dave Brock coaching era at Delaware. Blue Hens fans won't be impressed, though, unless the team gets back to the FCS playoffs after missing in its final two seasons under K.C. Keeler.
Rhode Island, the only winless team in the FCS last season, and dead last in scoring offense, figures it will only have a healthier year. The Rams get back linebackers Doug Johnson and Dave Zocco, their leading tacklers in 2011, and hope top receiver Robbie Jackson is fully healthy after a foot injury basically cost him five games.
A perfect 10? New Hampshire has made nine straight trips to the playoffs - the nation's longest current run.
OH, YES, HIM AGAIN
The four running backs who earned All-CAA first- or second-team honors return, and none is named Andrew Pierce. He had a subpar, injury-plagued junior season, but expects to build on his 3,637 career rushing yards.
James Madison linebacker Stephon Robertson, the 2012 CAA defensive player of the year, is back to basically cover his half of the field.
Preseason Top 10 candidates Villanova and Towson both return their entire starting offensive line. Towson boasts tackles Eric Pike and Randall Harris, while Villanova even adds in All-CAA center Dan Shirey, who missed last season with an Achilles injury.
New Hampshire already had a terrific group of returning safeties (Manny Assam, Chris Beranger, Hayden Knudson), but Casey DeAndrade, coming off a redshirt season, is an explosive player who's ready to make his mark.
Villanova's Jamal Abdur-Rahman showed game-changing speed in 2011 only to sit out last season with a team suspension. He's needed more at wide receiver, but also plays running back (7.7-yard average on 38 carries in '11).
We mentioned Thorpe earlier, but dual-threat sophomore Michael Birdsong is generally considered the frontrunner to be the starting quarterback at James Madison.
Richmond QB - "The Mike & Mike Show" has only one leading role. Either incumbent quarterback Michael Strauss or Virginia transfer Michael Rocco will be given the keys to a veteran offense.
William & Mary QB - Senior Brent Caprio and Michael Graham and junior Raphael Ortiz have battled injuries and ineffectiveness in a position that has set the Tribe back the last two seasons. Caprio won't be available in the spring after having shoulder surgery. Whoever wins the starting job needs to have increased consistency.
Leading rusher Rickey Stevens returns at Maine, but he has plenty of company with the likes of Nigel Jones, David Hood and others.
SPRING PRACTICE DATES
Albany: April 1-27
Delaware: April 1-May 4
James Madison: March 21-April 20
Maine: April 11-May 4
New Hampshire: April 2-May 4
Rhode Island: March 25-April 27
Richmond: March 21-April 20
Stony Brook: March 27-April 21
Towson: March 28-April 27
Villanova: March 12-April 18
William & Mary: March 15-April 13