(STATS) - The day the spotlight shined brightest on the 2015 CAA Football season also turned out to be its most revealing.
James Madison was 7-0 and ranked fourth in the STATS FCS Top 25 when ESPN's "College GameDay" descended upon Shenandoah Valley for its Oct. 24 showdown with No. 11 Richmond, also unbeaten in league play. The outlook for both the conference and one of its flagship programs, a legitimate FCS championship contender, couldn't have been brighter.
Or so it seemed.
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The landmark event wound up a nightmare for the Dukes when quarterback Vad Lee, the likely front-runner for FCS Offensive Player of the Year, played his final collegiate snap after hurting his left foot early in the fourth quarter of an eventual 59-49 loss to the Spiders.
With Lee gone, JMU's prolific offense went from great to not good enough. Though still able to garner a share of the conference title and a No. 5 seed for the playoffs, the Dukes didn't benefit from a first-round bye and fell 44-38 to Colgate. It was their third loss in five games, an undeniably bitter ending to a season that held such promise.
The Dukes weren't alone in that regard.
Preseason conference favorite Villanova never fully recovered from a mid-September season-ending knee injury to quarterback John Robertson, last season's FCS Offensive Player of the Year, and missed the playoffs altogether. New Hampshire, a top-10 team at the season's outset, fell just short of a piece of the CAA title in part due to quarterback Sean Goldrich's three-game absence with an ankle sprain. Upstart Stony Brook's hopes of breaking into the conference's upper tier were derailed when dynamic running back Stacey Bedell was lost for the year with a shoulder injury in the third game.
"If you're a great team, you can absorb injuries," Stony Brook coach Chuck Priore said. "If you're a good team, sometimes you can't."
All those what-ifs still shouldn't detract from Richmond's accomplishments. The Spiders held a two-touchdown lead on JMU when Lee went down and further proved to be the class of the conference with two playoff wins, reaching the semifinals for the first time since its 2008 national title season and finishing fourth in the final STATS poll.
"I'm extremely proud of my players and my coaching staff for their efforts this year and the accomplishments we have made this season," CAA Football Coach of the Year Danny Rocco said. "... I've got a young football team, and I'm certainly excited about our future."
One player who isn't part of that future is senior Jacobi Green, who took over as the conference's best player in Lee's absence and carried the Spiders. He amassed 1,206 of his league-leading 1,595 rushing yards over a seven-game span beginning with the JMU win and ending with Richmond's 39-27 upset of No. 2 seed Illinois State in the playoff quarterfinals.
Even the Spiders' impressive run, ultimately cut short by the unstoppable force known as North Dakota State in the semis, didn't come without its stumbles. Richmond began November with back-to-back close losses at New Hampshire and Villanova before bouncing back with a 20-9 win over rival William & Mary in the final week, forging a three-way tie with the Tribe and JMU for the conference title and earning its automatic berth.
The result capped one of CAA Football's more competitive seasons in recent memory, with six teams ending within a game of first place and Villanova also entering its finale with a shot at a co-championship. The conference sent four teams to the playoffs for a second straight year, with New Hampshire extending the FCS' longest active postseason streak with a 12th consecutive appearance and William & Mary making its first trip since 2010. The Tribe survived a 52-49 thriller against Northeast Conference champ Duquesne in the opening round before losing a rematch to Richmond in the second.
Parity can have its drawbacks, however. CAA Football has now gone six seasons since Villanova captured the 2009 national title, the last of a dominant seven-year run in which the league won four FCS championships (two while still under the Atlantic 10 banner) and had two runner-up finishes.
"The CAA, we just got a lot of great talented people here. Richmond's a great team," Lee said. "... We play in a tough conference that beat each other up every week."
CHANGES AT THE TOP: The biggest coaching news doesn't even involve a team making a switch, at least not yet. Villanova's Andy Talley announced that 2016 will be his 32nd and final season before handing the reins to longtime assistant Mark Ferrante. The 72-year-old Talley is the Wildcats' winningest coach with a 221-133-1 record which includes six conference titles, 11 playoff appearances and one FCS championship. Two CAA Football programs will have new coaches next season. James Madison lost Everett Withers to Texas State so it brought in Mike Houston, who led The Citadel to a 9-4 record with the triple option. Maine removed the interim tag from Joe Harasymiak and made the program's former defensive coordinator its permanent coach to replace Jack Cosgrove, who retired after 23 seasons. Plus, Richmond lost offensive coordinator Charlie Fisher to Western Illinois after ranking second in the conference in scoring and total yards.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER (OF MOST) OF THE YEAR: Lee took home CAA Football's top offensive honor despite missing JMU's final four games. He still beat out Richmond's Kyle Lauletta by one yard as the league leader in total offense during the regular season, and Lee led all FCS players at the time of his injury with 375.5 yards per game. Even counting the playoffs, the senior was the conference leader in touchdown passes (21), not to mention passer rating (165.5) and completion percentage (68.3). The two-way threat had three games in which he topped 200 yards passing and 100 rushing, and Lee became the only player in Division I history to pass and run for 275 yards in the same game - a win over FBS foe SMU.
CO-DEFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE YEAR, CO-DRAFTEES?: It's possible the only CAA Football players to be selected in the NFL draft will be William & Mary safety DeAndre Houston-Carson and Stony Brook defensive end Victor Ochi. Not surprisingly, they shared the league's Defensive Player of the Year honor. Ochi is a speedy defensive end who led the FCS during the regular season with 13 sacks, and Houston-Carson had team highs of 109 tackles and four interceptions. While Ochi is less likely to hear his name called, Houston-Carson could go as high as the third round in part because he's as a special-teams ace with a knack for blocking kicks. "DeAndre is a special player and he's got a special shot in the (NFL)," Lee said. Another former Tribe player is the other CAA name most mentioned on draft boards in linebacker Luke Rhodes.
ALSO BACK IN THE BIG APPLE: For the second time in three years, a high school star who left New York to play collegiately in Massachusetts is returning home to join Stony Brook - and potentially make a big impact. The first was Bedell, a Long Island native who spent two years at UMass before transferring to the Seawolves and posting a 1,000-yard season in 2014. The latest is Sherman Alston Jr., a 5-foot-6 speedster who flashed potential as a freshman at Boston College before having his playing time cut in 2015. That led to the Harlem native and kick-return specialist, who averaged 10.4 yards per carry and 10.9 per reception in 2014, to join Priore at Stony Brook. "With the addition of Sherman, we have increased our big-play capabilities on offense," Priore said.
MAINE MEN: The 29-year-old Harasymiak is already making an impact on the recruiting trail, reeling in a pair of high-profile FBS transfers in running back Zaire Williams (Temple) and defensive back DeAndre Scott (Arizona State). Williams, who will have two years of eligibility remaining, rushed for 533 yards on 101 carries as a true freshman in 2013.
SEEKING PLAYOFF RUN AFTER PLAYOFF SNUB, PART II: As was the case in 2012, Towson was one of the final two teams left out of the playoffs - named on the FCS selection show along with North Dakota as the last teams not to make the field. When it happened three years ago, coach Rob Ambrose's team took it as motivation and made a run to the following season's national title game. Next season's team will have two-time 1,000-yard rusher Darius Victor back in the mix. Everyone will know right away if the Tigers, who could make the preseason STATS FCS Top 25, have what it takes to be a serious playoff contender with games No. 3 and 4 coming at Villanova and Richmond.
ON THE RISE: After going 0-8 in conference play in its 2014 CAA debut, Elon recorded its initial league victory with a 17-13 win over Towson on Sept. 26 and earned road wins over Stony Brook and Maine later in the season. Another leap forward figures to be challenging, though, due to a daunting schedule that includes trips to William & Mary, JMU and Towson and home dates against Richmond, Villanova and New Hampshire.
ON THE DECLINE?: Though able to continue its impressive playoff streak, New Hampshire had another end with its 27-20 first-round loss to Colgate. The Wildcats, a semifinals participant in each of the previous two seasons, finished out the final Top 25 for the first time since 2003.
NEXT YEAR: Richmond loses Green but brings back 15 starters, including the conference's top returning quarterback in Lauletta, to rate as the early favorite in what should be another competitive race. The title may very well again be decided in the Spiders' regular-season finale with William & Mary, which fields potentially the league's most explosive offense and hosts next season's annual grudge match. There'll be no shortage of challengers to both, however. James Madison has enough talent in place to make Houston's debut a strong one, and perennial powers Villanova and New Hampshire can never be counted out. Delaware, which had 15 underclassmen start at least seven games last season, Towson and Maine loom as possible sleepers that could crash the party as well.