Every game is important when you only play 11 of them. Still, some games loom larger than others, and the next game could be the biggest game of the season for the University of Delaware football team.
The Blue Hens come off of their open week with a record of 2-2 as they prepare to meet conference foe Richmond on Saturday afternoon.
They’ve already lost one Colonial Athletic Association game, their season-opener against Rhode Island when they fell 21-19 (more on that later). That means that can’t afford to lose this one, because an 0-2 conference record to start off the season would probably be an insurmountable obstacle if the Hens want to return to the FCS (or Division I-AA) playoffs for the first time in eight years.
And what long-time Delaware fans would have believed it if you had told them that their heroes would go that long without making it to the postseason?
Nobody expects Delaware to actually win the conference championship – it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that defending champion James Madison will win it again. The Dukes are not only the class of the watered-down CAA (more on that later, as well), but they’re ranked No. 2 in the nation behind defending champion North Dakota State.
That’s the team the Blue Hens faced in their last game and they were humbled 38-10 by Carson Wentz’s alma mater. There’s no disgrace in that, because the Bison humble lots of teams, which is why they’ve won six of the last seven national titles. Still, the Hens weren’t even competitive against North Dakota State, which is another reason the Richmond game is so important. Not only do the Blue Hens have to get back on the winning track, they also have to regain their swagger.
Anyway, back to the CAA. Since Delaware is a long shot at best to win the conference, that means it must qualify for the playoffs as an at-large team. Last year, they had an outside shot at that all the way to the end before they lost badly to Villanova, which just illustrates what a slippery slope the path to the playoffs can be.
For one thing, the CAA doesn’t have the clout it used to before teams like Old Dominion and Massachusetts abandoned it. It’s still one of the best FCS leagues around, but it’s not like it used to be. Not that long ago, the Top 10 rankings in the FCS looked like the CAA standings, but now there are just two CAA teams in the top 10 – James Madison and No. 7 Elon. Three other CAA teams are in the top 20 – No. 11 Stoney Brook, No. 17 Towson an No. 19 Villanova.
So, the Hens can’t afford to lose this game to Richmond, especially since the Spiders aren’t as good as they were when Delaware coach Danny Rocco ran their program – Richmond is just 0-2 in the CAA and 2-3 overall.
And that brings us back to that opener against Rhode Island, which was a case of terrible scheduling. The Rams aren’t a national power, but they are pretty good – they’re 2-0 in the CAA and 3-1 overall – and there’s no way the Blue Hens should have started their season against them.
It was the late, great Al McGuire, the Hall-of-Fame basketball coach at Marquette, who famously said many years ago that he always made sure his team opened the season against East Cupcake State. In other words, start the season against a team you know you will beat even if you don’t play well. And there’s always a good chance a college team won’t play well in its opener.
For one thing, this isn’t the NFL, where you can have the same players on your roster for a decade. There is an incredible amount of turnover every year in the college game and unless you’re somebody like Alabama, who can simply plug in another high school All-American, there’s a good chance you’re going to stumble around a bit before you get your sea legs.
That’s why Delaware opened against West Chester for so many years. The Rams were usually a very good Division II team. But even at their best they rarely could stay on the field with the Blue Hens. And then the Hens opened a couple of times against Delaware State, another team they could beat easily, even if they played poorly.
After their loss to Rhode Island this year, they cruised past two bad teams, Lafayette and Cornell, by a combined score of 64-0. And those should have been their first two games so they would have been able to work out the kinks before opening their CAA schedule.
The Blue Hens still have time to get their act together, but it has to start this week against Richmond. As another late, great Hall-of-Fame coach – George Allen of the Washington Redskins — once said, the future is now.