Dueling Banjos: A Final Look At The CAA Playoff Picture

Inside The Rise Of Curt Cignetti

With the FCS Playoffs officially upon us, Kyle Kensing and Kolby Paxton provide some final insight into the trio of CAA teams who will be playing for a trip to Frisco, Texas, over the course of the next several weeks.

UAlbany leads off on Saturday at 1 PM ET with a visit from Central Connecticut State, followed by Villanova's trip to Southeastern Louisiana, which kicks off at 4 PM ET. JMU will enjoy the bye before hosting a second round game on Dec. 7.

The first two rounds will stream on ESPN3.

UAlbany

Kensing: UAlbany’s emergence to second place in the CAA may have come as a surprise to those who slotted the Great Danes last in the preseason poll. However, coach Greg Gattuso said he foresaw the potential of a special season when Jeff Undercuffler played last November, taking advantage of the NCAA’s four-game redshirt rule. 

With the talented youngster behind center, a veteran offensive line and Karl Mofor establishing himself as the CAA’s most productive ball-carrier, UAlbany made its way to the playoffs for just the second time in program history with an exciting offense. 

The Great Danes defense has been just as exciting, though, ranking third in the conference in sacks behind the otherworldly play of Eli Mencer. Generating pressure up front has translated to plenty of takeaway opportunities. 

First round opponent Central Connecticut State went undefeated against FCS competition, and were it not for an absolute bonkers finish at Eastern Michigan, would have run the table in the regular season. 

The Blue Devils led the Northeast Conference in both scoring offense and scoring defense despite not having an individual go off in any individual category. In a lot of ways, you could call CCSU the James Madison of the NEC this season -- and considering last year’s NEC representative in the playoffs, Duquense, knocked of the Dukes, UAlbany cannot take the Blue Devils lightly. Gattuso said as much, citing his own background as a former NEC head coach. 


Paxton: UAlbany’s ascent absolutely came as a surprise to us, but, to be fair, we were working under the same pretense as the group of folks who picked the Great Danes to finish near the bottom of the league — a collective opinion that was formed without any idea what Undercuffler was going to become behind center.

At the tail end of a seemingly lost 2018 season, Gattuso took advantage of the redshirt rule in a way that, for whatever reason, few head coaches actually ever do. Safe to say it paid enormous dividends. Undercuffler played like a veteran all season long, consistently raising his team’s ceiling from one week to the next. 

What’s more, for all the attention paid to guys like Shane Simpson, Justin Covington and Yeedee Thaenrat, it was UAlbany’s Karl Mofor who ultimately served as the workhorse in the backfield for a CAA playoff team.

In a way, a first round matchup with Central Connecticut State is sort of poetic, as it pits an unheralded-in-the-preseason team with an unheralded-heading-into-the-postseason team. Despite an 11-1 record, the lack of star power in the Blue Devils locker room has many taking them for granted — to the extent that they’re taking their show on the road to Albany, N.Y., right off the bat.

While the NEC isn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, the CAA, CCSU poses a very real threat to UAlbany. That probably goes without saying, but I’m saying it anyway.

James Madison

Kensing: To emerge from a loaded CAA unscathed, as James Madison did, speaks to the toughness of this bunch. The Dukes’ path back to another postseason was defined by their toughness in all phases, with a physically imposing brand of football on both sides of the ball. 

James Madison used this approach to lead the CAA both in scoring offense and defense. What’s interesting, however, is that for a program with a national championship and four of the last five CAA titles, how unique the Curt Cignetti-coached version of Dukes football has been compared to predecessors Everett Withers and Mike Houston. 

With John Daka, Ron’Dell Carter, Dimitri Holloway and Co. on defense, and the multifaceted run game on offense, James Madison punched opposition in the jaw and defied them to punch back. 

Automatic qualifiers Monmouth and Holy Cross of the Big South Conference and Patriot League play for the right to face James Madison. Coincidentally, both beat CAA opponents in 2019: Monmouth held off UAlbany in overtime, while Holy Cross knocked off New Hampshire in interim coach Ricky Santos’ first game. 


Paxton: First and foremost, I’d like to simply take this opportunity to tip the bill of my proverbial cap in the direction of Curt Cignetti, Ron’Dell Carter and Rashad Robinson for being exactly who they said they were and doing exactly what they said they’d do when we stopped by to visit them in Harrisonburg three months ago.

Cignetti, for his part, has been nails in the midst of each opponent's best shot. During a conversation we had back in October, Carter told me that it’s Cignetti’s calm, cool demeanor when the on-field intensity is being ratcheted up a notch that separates him — and infuses confidence and unyielding swagger into his players.

It’s Frisco-or-bust for the Dukes — and I’m not breaking any news with that. Carter, the CAA Defensive Player of the Year, headlines the nation’s most talented defense, top to bottom. I use the term ‘headlnes’ loosely, as guys like Daka and Holloway can (and will) rise up and take center stage from one week to the next.

And, oh by the way, JMU’s quarterback, Ben DiNucci, has a video game completion percentage (70.3) and was just named the CAA’s offensive MVP.

The Dukes are loaded. It doesn’t matter who they’re playing next week, or the week after, or the week after that. This is a group that expects to be playing for a national title in January — and rightfully so.

Villanova 

Kensing: Perhaps the most confounding decision of the selection committee was not just slotting Villanova, ranked No. 8 in the final FCS STATS Top 25 of the regular season, out of the top eight seeds; but in sending the Wildcats on the road for the 1st Round. While I might disagree, Mark Ferrante seemed none-too-bothered -- excited, even, citing his team’s “Road Warrior” mentality

Among Villanova’s marquee road wins was an overtime defeat of Towson when both were ranked in the top 10, and a thrilling defeat of William & Mary -- a team we’re very likely to be discussing in the playoff picture a year from now. Villanova’s electric offense travels well, and matches up nicely against Southeastern Louisiana.

SELA was No. 114 nationally against the pass, so Walter Payton Award contender Dan Smith has a prime opportunity to light it up after two straight weeks passing for four and five touchdowns to close the regular season. 


Paxton: Kensing led with the point, but it bears repeating: The CAA cannibalized itself to some extent, resulting in only two additional bids outside of the Dukes. That’s fine. But forcing the eighth-ranked team in the country — one that refused to fold despite losing Justin Covington to a season-ending injury — on the road in the first round, is borderline malpractice.

Ferrante is saying all of the right things and the ‘Road Warrior’ theme that ‘Nova is going with is cool. But none of that should’ve been necessary yet. 

In any case, I’m not sure it’ll matter much. Southeastern Louisiana has exhibited no evidence that it’s capable of keeping a lid on Dan Smith and there’s no one in that secondary equipped to hang with Changa Hodge.

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