Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - CAA Football has had five different schools win FCS national titles in the last 16 years, and two more made serious attempts to increase that impressive total last season, with Towson reaching the championship game and New Hampshire the national semifinals.
There's no getting around the exceptional depth in the CAA, which causes many sleepless nights for the coaching staffs.
The conference is so strong that the defending champion, Maine, isn't even one of the first three or four programs in the conversation for 2014 laurels.
Here's a look across the conference with spring practices getting underway across the nation:
Maine must overcome the loss of numerous key seniors to stay in the title mix. Redshirt sophomore Dan Collins appears to be the replacement for All-CAA quarterback Marcus Wasilewski, who posted one of the best seasons in program history. But it's not welcome news for coach Jack Cosgrove that his squad has to replace three starters on the offensive line.
Towson running back Darius Victor, the CAA's 2013 offensive rookie of the year, was particularly impressive as a freshman, but the Tigers will find it nearly impossible to replace Terrance West (2,509 yards, 42 total touchdowns) to an early departure to the NFL. In fact, the Tigers return only three starters on offense.
The face of James Madison's program, head coach Mickey Matthews, who led the Dukes to the 2004 national title, has changed after 15 seasons. New defensive- minded coach Everett Withers, who has learned under such coaches as Urban Meyer, Jeff Fisher and Mack Brown, is charged with lifting a program that has underachieved in recent years yet might be next in line for an FCS-to-FBS move.
While James Madison continues to entertain a future move to the FBS, the CAA will grow this season with the addition of Elon from the Southern Conference. The Phoenix have struggled the last two seasons, but have a new coach in Rich Skrosky.
New Rhode Island coach Jim Fleming, the former defensive coordinator at Central Florida, won't find a quick fix to the Rams' perennial struggles. The Rams will have a change at quarterback after the graduation of two-and-a-half-year starter Bob Bentsen (redsirt junior Kolt Peavey, who started the final game last season, and redshirt freshmen Luke Casey and Mack Lowrie, a Boston College transfer, are next in line), and the defense lost eight of its primary starters.
It might be a big season for the pass rushers. Only two of the 15 offensive linemen on the three All-CAA teams, Richmond's Austin Gunn (first team) and Villanova's Ross Hall (third team), were underclassmen last season.
Second-year Delaware coach Dave Brock won't have to do a lot to motivate his Blue Hens, who have missed the playoffs the last three seasons. They were 7-2 after a win over Towson last season and then missed a postseason berth by losing their final three games.
Will Year 2 in the CAA go better for Albany and Stony Brook? Both stepped up in class a year ago and Albany was winless in conference games while Stony Brook had a losing season.
Now about those sleepless nights ... think Villanova dual-threat quarterback John Robertson.
New Hampshire can rotate quarterbacks Sean Goldrich and Andy Vailas for the third straight season. Over the last two campaigns, including the Wildcats' run to the national semifinals last season, Goldrich has posted 3,869 yards of total offense and a combined 30 TD passes and runs; Vailas, 3,582 and 35.
Richmond has the conference's best passing quarterback in senior Michael Strauss, who wants to transform his sizzling Novembers over the last two years into full-season success.
Delaware senior Michael Johnson is one of the CAA's most versatile players. Off receptions, rushes and kickoff returns, he ranked second in the CAA with 150 all-purpose yards per game.
Albany, under new coach Greg Gattuso, has a true standout in running back Omar Osbourne, who churned out 1,206 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground and caught 23 passes as a junior.
William & Mary's defense was scary good last season and three of its All-CAA first-team selections, Mike Reilly at end and Airek Green and Luke Rhodes at linebacker, return.
Towson loses its three starting linebackers, but only because Bryton Barr missed 14 games with a shoulder injury. He started as a true freshman in 2012.
Not long ago, quarterback Michael Birdsong was considered the present and future of James Madison football. He still might be, but Withers has brought in transfer Vad Lee, an option-style signal caller who started all 13 games at Georgia Tech last season. Both QBs have two seasons of eligibility remaining.
New Hampshire will try to replace the 1,000-plus yards and 10 touchdowns of wide receiver Justin Mello. Jimmy Giansante, Jared Allison, Mike DeTroia and Kyon Taylor each hopes to be the answer.
Three Villanova sophomores - Trey Johnson, Jason Ceneus and C.J. Logan - are battling for two open jobs at cornerback.
Towson's offensive line returns one starter, guard Sam Evans. The young unit includes tackles Jake Schunke, a junior, and Shayne Sullivan, a sophomore, as well as redshirt freshmen Amos Campbell, Antonio Harris and Fred Santarelli.
Villanova is counting on junior nose guard Pat Williams to replace Antoine Lewis and sophomore defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon to replace Rakim Cox after they lost the two All-CAA standouts.
William & Mary senior defensive tackle Jasper Coleman has never earned All-CAA honors, but if he stays healthy, he could make a late-career move to pro potential. The athletic 6-foot-4, 290-pounder has a high ceiling.
Elon is counting on a banner season out of junior linebacker Alexander Dawson.
Stony Brook had a pair of 1,000-yard rushers for three straight seasons from 2010-12. Marcus Coker, coming off an injury-shortened season, will be the featured back, but Massachusetts transfer Stacey Bedell is said to have abilities similar to Brock Jackolski, who had two of the 1,000-yard seasons.
Only a junior this coming season, Maine's Trevor Bates has been handed the No. 9 jersey that is passed down from the team's defensive leader to the next in line. He can play either defensive end or linebacker.
READY FOR IMPROVEMENT
It only seems like William & Mary has been trying to fix its quarterback woes (injuries and ineffectiveness) since before 35th-year coach Jimmye Laycock's arrival on campus. The problem of the last three seasons hopes to have a fix with veteran Raphael Ortiz, promising redshirt freshman Jhalil Mosley and sophomore Steve Cluley.
A team can't get away with allowing 468.5 yards per game in any conference, let alone the CAA. Elon allowed that amount in its final season in the Southern Conference and now has to retool its defense after losing a lot up front and in the secondary.
Not only does Stony Brook seek to replace punter/kicker Nick Ferrara, but its special teams lacked breakaway ability. The kick returners averaged only 17 yards and the punt returners just six yards. At least Graham Ball came on strong during the second half of the season to ease some of the place-kicking concerns.
Delaware has to do a better job against the pass, as reflected in November losses last season. The Blues were 10th in the CAA in pass defense and they surrendered a conference-high 26 touchdown passes. Getting back a healthier Jake Giusti at free safety is huge.
SPRING PRACTICE DATES
Albany: March 24-April 19
Delaware: April 8-May 3
Elon: March 31-April 26
James Madison: March 19-April 12
Maine: April 10-May 3
New Hampshire: April 1-May 3
Rhode Island: March 24-April 26
Richmond: April 19-March 20
Stony Brook: March 25-April 26
Towson: March 27-April 26
Villanova: March 11-April 12
William & Mary: March 14-April 12