For the first time in a long time, Delaware football fans have something to look forward to beyond the tailgating and socializing that has been part of the Blue Hens experience for decades. After seven painful seasons of mostly mediocre football and no playoff appearances, Delaware is once again a force to be reckoned with.
The main reason for that is second-year coach Danny Rocco and the savvy and stability he brought to Newark, something that was badly missing under his predecessor, Dave Brock, a nice guy who proved to be a bad head coach.
The progress the team made last year under Rocco was impressive, as they finished with their first winning record in the conference (5-3) in six years before faltering down the stretch and losing out on the playoffs when they lost their final game, 28-7 to Villanova. But there was no question that Delaware football was once again meaningful. And even better things are expected in Year 2 of the Rocco era.
You don’t have to believe us. In their annual preseason poll, the coaches and media relations directors of the Colonial Athletic Association predicted the Blue Hens would finish third in what is generally recognized as the best FCS (or, if you prefer, Division I-AA) conference in the nation. Defending conference champ James Madison, which won the national championship two years ago and made it to the final game last season, was picked to win the CAA again, with New Hampshire second and Delaware third.
That’s a big jump from where Delaware was just two seasons ago, when they had one of their worst seasons ever, going 2-6 and finishing 10thin the CAA in what proved to be Brock’s final season.
But even before then the Blue Hens had been in steady decline. Since they went to the national championship game under coach K.C. Keeler in 2010, the Hens’ best conference finish was fifth, which they did twice. They also finished sixth, eighth, ninth and 10thwhile compiling a CAA record of 20-28.
Then Rocco appeared on the scene after a successful run at Richmond, and things started to change almost immediately. The Blue Hens became more disciplined and fundamentally sound and that paid off in a big way. And now, as Rocco has had a chance to recruit, the talent level has also gotten better.
And now, when people talk about the best teams in Division I-AA, Delaware is once again in the conversation. The Athlon preseason poll, which is generally regarded as one of the most legitimate polls out there, ranks the Blue Hens 13thin the nation, while the HERO sports poll (and we admit we have no idea who those guys are) says the Hens are No. 9 (right behind Sam Houston State, led by former UD coach Keeler).
Another reason for optimism — this is Rocco’s second season and now his players have an even better grasp of his system, his style and his expectations. That experience from the 2017 season — and, just as importantly, a full off-season – will make a huge difference in 2018.
We’re not saying that Delaware is ready to compete for a national championship or even a conference championship. But at least people are giving UD the consideration and credibility that was once taken for granted in Blue Hens country but was lost during the Brock years.
And if Delaware fans want to know how good their 2018 team is, they won’t have to wait long to find out. On Sept. 22, in the fourth game of the season, the Blue Hens play at North Dakota State, which has won six of the last seven FCS national championships, including last season when it beat James Madison 17-13 in the title game (and, as all Eagles fans know, quarterback Carson Wentz led North Dakota State to one of those championships).
North Dakota State will be a heavy favorite in that game, especially since it’s being played at the intimidating Fargodome, where the Bison have gone 58-5 since 2011, which is when they began their run of national titles. Of course, it would be a huge statement if the Hens won that game, but, really, all they have to do is be competitive with the best program in the country while playing in one of the toughest stadiums in the country to make the statement they want to make – Delaware football is back.