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Colonial Athletic Association Teams Continue to Beat Division I-A teams

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By Kathy Orton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 10, 2009

Last weekend's victories by William & Mary over Virginia, Richmond over Duke and Villanova over Temple reinforced the notion that the Colonial Athletic Association remains one of the strongest leagues in division I-AA football, if not the most powerful.

Should James Madison knock off Maryland and New Hampshire topple Ball State on Saturday, it will further enhance the CAA's reputation and strengthen the argument that the talent gap between division I-A teams and the top programs in I-AA is shrinking.

"I've always told people that when Appalachian [State] beat Michigan [in 2007] . . . it was all the talking heads on television that were talking about what a huge upset it was," James Madison Coach Mickey Matthews said. "You didn't hear any coaches in the Big Ten and the CAA saying it was a huge upset. The top 10 or 15 teams in I-AA football can play with anyone in the country. I'm not saying we're going to beat them, but we certainly can compete against anyone."

This is the fourth year in a row that at least one CAA team has defeated a division I-A team. New Hampshire is going for its fifth consecutive win against a division I-A team this weekend. Since 1997, CAA teams boast 19 wins against division I-A opponents; no other I-AA conference comes close to matching that number.

CAA teams have also fared well within their own classification. The league sent a record five teams to the division I-AA playoffs in each of the past two seasons. Last year in the 16-team field, four of the final eight teams and two of the final four teams were from the CAA.

Richmond, which is ranked No. 1 in the two division I-AA polls, was the third CAA team to win the national championship in the last six years. Half of the top 10 teams ranked in each of the polls are from the CAA; seven CAA teams are ranked in the top 25.

"I think the perception of our league is pretty significant nationwide," William & Mary Coach Jimmye Laycock said. A win against a division I-A team "only goes to expand on that more. This is a very, very strong league with very, very good teams, very well-coached teams. It's extremely competitive and the fact that we can go and win some of these [division I-A] ballgames even adds to it."

Every team in the 12-member CAA plays a division I-A opponent, partly for financial reasons (the division I-A school pays the I-AA team to play, an arrangement also known as a guarantee game -- the bigger school is supposedly guaranteed a win, the smaller school is guaranteed a paycheck) and partly to prepare for the rigors of its conference schedule.

"There's a financial element in it," CAA Commissioner Tom Yeager said. "I won't dismiss that for an instant, but I think at the same time there's a very real opportunity to kind of lace 'em up and give it a shot."

Division I-A teams need at least six wins to become bowl-eligible, and are allowed to count wins against division I-AA programs that award athletic scholarships to at least 60 student-athletes (for example, James Madison counts, but Georgetown does not). Most schools view a division I-AA opponent as an easy way to pick up one of the six required wins.

Not everyone from the smaller classification is a fan of such matchups. Even though Villanova has played 14 games against division I-A opponents since Andy Talley took over the program in 1984 -- and even though the Wildcats opened with a win over Temple, which was picked to finish second in the Mid-American Conference's East Division -- Villanova's coach thinks such games leave division I-AA teams at a disadvantage.

"I don't like the I-A game," he said. "It's usually a loss; I think we've won three times. All the coaches that say they like it -- hmmm, I don't think they do. I mean, how can you like it when you start out the season 0-1? And then you get to play all the tough teams in our league, so now you have two more losses and that's it. You've got three losses, you may make the playoffs. . . . To me, the name of the game is to try to get to the playoffs, and the I-A game impedes that big time."

Talley may not like playing division I-A opponents, but he may be grateful for such games when it comes time to deciding who goes to the postseason. In division I-AA, only 16 of the 123 teams are chosen for the playoffs. Eight conference champions automatically are awarded a spot; the other eight teams come from an at-large pool.

Football is not like basketball. There are no bracket-buster games. Few of the top division I-AA football teams play one another during the season and even fewer have common opponents.

When the committee is deciding among CAA, Missouri Valley and Southern Conference teams, wins over division I-A squads might decide which program goes to the playoffs and which stays home. The season opener can have season-ending implications.

Still, Richmond Coach Mike London isn't getting carried away with his team's victory over Duke.

"That's Game One" of the season, he said.

"The win is significant because it is a win and obviously it's against an ACC opponent. . . . In this profession, anytime you can win a game, no matter who you play, that's the most significant thing."

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