#4: Richmond at Virginia (September 6th)
Al Groh’s Cavaliers were one of the better stories in college football last year, spending much of the 2007 season in the ACC title hunt while finishing the year with a 9-4 record. Their success was deceiving however, as Virginia pulled out four net close wins (wins of a touchdown or less) including one point wins over Wake Forest, Maryland, and Connecticut to go along with a two point win over always powerful Middle Tennessee State. Virginia figured to be rebuilding in 2008 with the loss of all everything defensive end Chris Long (who, to put it bluntly, won several games basically by himself for Virginia last year), but further and unexpected losses on both sides of the ball this off-season have left Groh’s squad desperately inexperienced. Aside from having to break in a new quarterback in 2008, Virginia must replace three offensive linemen and all three defensive linemen, including rising star Jeffery Fitzgerald, who left the team abruptly this spring.
Richmond, meanwhile, is fresh off an 11-3 season in the ultra-competitive Colonial Athletic Conference in which the Spiders made it all the way to the National semi-final game where they lost to Appalachian State. Richmond returns eight starters on both sides of the football and gets two more back in OL Tim Silver and DE Sherman Logan, both of whom sat out much of 2007 due to injury. They do lose All-American running back Tim Hightower and have a new Head Coach at the helm with Mike London, but the Spiders are no strangers to playing quality competition as their six wins against FCS Top 25 teams were the most of any team in the country last year. Rising senior Josh Vaughan ran for more than 700 yards and nine touchdowns last season, and should fill in nicely for Hightower while duel-threat quarterback Eric Ward continues his development.
After what figures to be a crushing loss to USC in week one Virginia will still be searching for an offensive identity when they return to Charlottesville on September 6th, while their promising but young defensive line will likely be going through some growing pains. I like Richmond’s rushing attack (12th nationally in the FCS last year) to shore up Virginia’s front seven, and for the Richmond defense to give Virginia’s already fairly pedestrian offense some problems. In a close game like this matchups matter but despite the coaching matchup of a veteran like Groh and a rookie like London, I give Richmond a great chance of pulling the upset here.
After being one of about seventeen people on the East Coast to watch Wyoming dismantle Virginia to begin the 2007 season I was thoroughly convinced on Joe Glenn’s ability to lead the Pokes to a winning season, and after a 4-1 start my suspicions seemed to be confirmed. Yet it was not to be, as Wyoming went on the drop six of their last seven including and embarrassing 50-0 crushing at the hands of Utah. The prospect of watching his team bludgeoned on the field offended Glenn so much that he flipped the bird to Utah head coach Kyle Wittingham during the contest, an act which this blogger eagerly applauded. Still, Wyoming’s downfall in 2007 went largely unnoticed, as the Pokes struggled offensively down the stretch en route to being out-gained by more than 80 yards per game in conference play. Quarterback Karstan Sween was woefully inconsistent, tossing 17 picks to just 12 touchdowns, and the team sputtered under a -12 turnover margin. They do get 14 starters back in 2007 including an explosive running back tandem in Devin Moore and Wynel Seldon, as well as an offensive line which returns its entire two-deep. Defensively Wyoming figures to be strong once again in 2007, although the Pokes will have to deal with the loss of two top flight corners in Michael Medina and Julius Stinson. With so much attention focused on North Dakota State’s running game, Wyoming’s inexperienced cornerbacks could struggle against the experienced and talented NDST receiving corps.
North Dakota State was in a transition state from Division II to the FCS last year and the program wasn’t even eligible for the playoffs. That was probably a good thing for numerous teams throughout the FCS, as the Bison only cruised their way to ten consecutive wins before losing a close game to rival South Dakota State to finish out the year. While all the team’s featured in our countdown are coming off of winning seasons, what separates North Dakota State from virtually every other FCS program in the country was the team’s ability to win two games against FBS competition in 2007, a feat which I believe was never before accomplished since the classifications were established (if I’m wrong on this one, let me know.) North Dakota State’s 27-21 win over Minnesota was well documented by the world wide leader, but an equally, if not even more impressive win came in week three when the Bison shellacked bowl bound Central Michigan 44-14, in the process holding the potent Chippewas offense to 150 yards and sixteen points below their yearly average. North Dakota State spent six weeks as the top ranked FCS team in 2007, and while they lose quarterback Steve Walker to graduation they do return their top skill position players, including one of the best running backs in the FCS in Tyler Roehl (1431 yards, 21 TD last year.) A solid receiving corps returns all the leading pass catchers from last season, including All-American candidate Kole Heckendorf. Defensively they will be adjusting to life after linebacker Joe Mays, but there is a veteran enough presence to keep the team in games and to let the offense go to work.
This is the one all the FCS fans have circled. It’s not that Wyoming is a bad team, it’s just that North Dakota State looked so dominant in wins over bowl-bound Central Michigan and Big Ten member Minnesota last season that they’ve built a reputation of being able to beat FBS teams. While this could work against them against Wyoming (especially considering Glenn’s background as a NAIA, D-II, and FCS coach) it remains to be seen whether Karstan Sween has furthered his development enough to overcome the inconsistency and turnovers which stalled Wyoming’s offense last season (-12 in 2007.) North Dakota State is a veteran team with senior leadership, and considering the talent level even a solid defense like Wyoming’s could struggle if kept on the field too long. North Dakota State’s potent offense and penchant for upsets make this my third most likely FCS upset of 2008, especially considering continued questions of the productivity of Wyoming’s offense.
It’s been a long and frankly depressing slide into mediocrity for the Cadets of West Point, as the once proud team that was producing National Championships and Heisman trophy winners some 60 years ago now struggles to post wins over lower tier MAC teams. Head coach Stan Brock hopes to begin a turnaround similar to the run engineered at Navy under Paul Johnson six years ago, making the transition to an option offense while downgrading the schedule, a move which should actually have Army looking up. Nevertheless the Black Knights are likely to have a very difficult time in 2007, as they’ll have only four starters back on offense while attempting to make the switch to the wishbone. The fact that last year’s starting quarterback Carson William’s is not exactly the most fleet-o-foot individual around compounds Army’s offensive issues going into the year, putting the Black Knights in a potentially no-win situation of making the decision to go with the ill-adapted Williams or a true freshmen in Paul McIntosh. In either case, Army will have to rely on solid fundamentals and scheme work to overcome a lack of playmakers on offense, a point exceptionally tough to accomplish in the first year of a new system (for comparisons sake, see Paul Johnson’s 2-10 season at Navy in ’02.) Defensively Army has been o.k. the past few years, but the loss of seven starters from a unit which allowed over 30 points per game in 2007 will likely drop them to the bottom of the FBS defensive rankings. What concerns me the most is the secondary, which will break in four new starters in 2007 against what was the FCS’ 13th ranked passing offense and 4th ranked passing efficiency offense last season.
New Hampshire isn’t an overwhelming FCS power like Appalachian State or Montana, but they’ve been a perennial winner under headman Sean McDonnell (60-47 in nine years of work) and more importantly have had a knack for beating FBS teams. New Hampshire has actually won their last three games against FBS opponents, with the latest being a win over Marshall 48-35 in 2007. New Hampshire runs a spread style passing attack that is more than capable of exposing Army’s defensive limitations, including a revamped Army secondary which must break in four new starters. While Ricky Santos does leave for the CFL after a record setting career at UNH the offense figures to still be potent, with Mississippi State transfer Kyle Aufrey coming in to compete for the starting job. UNH did struggle defensively last year but seven returning starters should help shore up the defense. The good news for New Hampshire is that they see an option offense every year with Rhode Island, so adjusting to the presumed Army wishbone look shouldn’t be too radical of a defensive gameplane.
Army has struggled with CAA teams in the recent past, with the Black Knights squeaking by UMass by a touchdown in 2005 and just getting by a mediocre Rhode Island team in overtime last season. Unlike those two teams New Hampshire has the resume of knocking off FBS teams on a regular basis and has the experience on offense to move the ball against Army even with a new quarterback. New Hampshire is arguably a better team than Army talent wise and with the Black Knights undergoing a transformation in offensive schemes it’s tough to see Army having that much success against a UNH defense which returns seven starters. As an Army fan I hate to go against the Cadets like this but we could see a lot of balls on the ground for Army, something which will cost the Black Knights dearly against a perennially explosive UNH offense.
Check back tommorow for my most likely FCS over FBS upset of 2008!