The CAA Challenge

Georgia State FCS Football Olufemi Opanubi
George Hammond

The CAA Challenge

With the departure this week of VCU to the Atlantic 10 and now Old Dominion to Conference USA, did one headline in a Virginia newspaper speak the truth when it screamed: “The CAA is doomed”?   That might be premature, but there’s no doubt the conference took a hit this week right in the solar plexus.

When George Mason announced it had declined an offer to join the A-10 a week ago, CAA brethren were holding their breath that VCU and Old Dominion might decide to stay, too.  No such luck. When VCU exited, it was only a matter of time before nearby ODU decided the grass was greener elsewhere as well. Time will tell whether the moves were wise, but there’s no doubt they leave the CAA in scrambling mode.  

And with Georgia State’s recent announcement that it’s headed to the Sun Belt Conference, we might see what kind of gambler CAA Commissioner Tom Yeager is. Granted, he doesn’t have to make any moves, but in this day of constant conference realignment, there have to be possibilities floating around. The CAA has been regarded as the nation’s best and most competitive FCS league in recent years. The conference has produced two national champions in the last four years and four of the last nine champions.

Even though VCU and Old Dominion answered some questions, plenty remain not only for the CAA but the entire FCS, too. With that in mind, here are possible scenarios:

* Stay the course.  Not counting ODU, there are 10 league schools playing football for the 2012 season: Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Villanova, William & Mary, Georgia State, Delaware, Towson, James Madison, and Richmond. But Rhode Island is headed to the Northeast Conference (for football) in 2013 and as mentioned, Georgia State goes to the Sun Belt (2013-14 school year).

*Go after big dogs Appalachian State and Georgia Southern and try to create a super FCS conference with the remnants of the CAA along with these two perennial powers. FCS fans would love this, but it’s unlikely to happen as App State has done a feasibility study to go to the FBS ranks, and Georgia Southern has hinted at an interest in FBS status. It’s doubtful they would be interested, particularly when they see others heading to Conference USA, Sun Belt, etc.

* Go after Stony Brook, Albany or Fordham. This is probably the most likely scenario. Stony Brook won the Big South Conference last fall but might be enticed to be in a conference closer to home.

* Go after other schools in the Southern Conference or Big South or possibly entice a Division II team to go to FCS status (that’s unlikely because of the cost involved). Pick one, and it’s likely been mentioned as a possible candidate. Coastal Carolina, Davidson and Liberty top this list.

 Of course, all this is linked to money. That’s why Rhode Island has opted to join the Northeast Conference in 2013.  When the Rams announced their intent to leave the CAA, school president David Dooley said in a statement released through the school: “Considering the uncertainties surrounding the fiscal climate and the alignment of NCAA FCS football programs, (athletic director) Thorr Bjorn and I think that joining the NEC provides the best opportunity to advance our program further.”

In the FCS, schools are allowed to award 63 full scholarships. The Northeast Conference, for instance, is moving toward a maximum of 40, according to the Providence Journal.  When Rhode Island made its announcement two years ago, the CAA’s Yeager said this in a Hampton, Va., Press article:  “There’s no denying that southern universities are structured differently than northeastern schools and they’re funded differently than northeastern schools, Yeager said. That’s a concern that we’ve discussed and will continue to address. But I think there’s a very real interest in coming to a conclusion about what’s in the best interest of everybody’s program and the league.”  As mentioned, that was said two years ago, but it’s certainly apropos this week, too.

Despite the recent exodus, the CAA remains one of the strongest if not the strongest FCS league in the nation. The key now is to keep JMU and Delaware in the conference. They have perennial strong programs with fan bases among the best in FCS ranks.  And both schools released statements this week that hint that they’re not going anywhere – at least for a while. Here’s what JMU said: “Although James Madison University is disappointed in these decisions (VCU and ODU), we continue to support the CAA and the values for which it stands. There are numerous examples of CAA schools whose values closely align with those of JMU. The list includes, among others, such institutions as William & Mary, Delaware and George Mason. These are schools with which we choose to be aligned because they share our commitment to academics and excellence in all sports, not just one or two.”

So if the CAA can at least keep Delaware, Villanova, William & Mary, JMU, Richmond, Towson and New Hampshire for football, sprinkle in a Stony Brook or Liberty, that sounds like a recipe for continued success.