2022 Monmouth vs Villanova

Villanova Football Preview: Wildcats Hope To Stand Tall In Revamped CAA

Villanova Football Preview: Wildcats Hope To Stand Tall In Revamped CAA

CAA football fans know exactly how good Villanova can be, but can the Wildcats be the league's outright cream of the crop as it enters a new era for 2022?

Aug 23, 2022 by Briar Napier
Villanova Football Preview: Wildcats Hope To Stand Tall In Revamped CAA

Colonial Athletic Association football fans know exactly how good Villanova can be, but can the Wildcats be the league's outright cream of the crop as it enters a new era for 2022? 

That's a question with a complicated answer.

Though an old conference rival is gone, and the Wildcats are coming off a strong season that included a deep run in the FCS playoffs, little is set in stone in the CAA football world. As always, 'Nova will have to prove itself as a conference championship threat.

Still, there's a major opportunity at Villanova's fingertips entering the 2022 season. 

Some key departures will make things a bit harder, but for the Wildcats, how they perform in the year ahead could be critical in the CAA's power dynamics for years to come. Simply put, it's an opportunity 'Nova doesn't want to let slip through its fingers.

Here's a look at what Villanova football will bring to the gridiron this season, as FloFootball previews every CAA football team ahead of this season's kickoff:

2021 season review: Prior to the 2021 season, Villanova coach Mark Ferrante had been part of literally every Wildcats Division I-AA/FCS playoff appearance in their history dating back to the program's first in 1989, when he was in his third year as the 'Nova offensive line coach. 

Having stayed with the Wildcats ever since and worked his way up the totem pole to being hired as head coach in 2017, he hadn't quite managed that deep of a postseason run as the Wildcats' sideline leader - until last season. 

The Wildcats narrowly missed an outright CAA title to James Madison, sharing the honor with the Dukes, but made up for it in the postseason by making the FCS quarterfinals for the first time since 2014. 

Holding both the league's second-best offense (behind JMU) and top-ranked defense per yards gained/allowed this past season, Ferrante was named the league's coach of the year, while stud graduate linebacker Forrest Rhyne (now with the Indianapolis Colts) won the CAA Defensive Player of the Year award following a ridiculous 153 total tackles - the highest mark in the conference by nearly 40 tackles. 

A beefy offensive line helped ball carriers like Justin Covington and Jalen Jackson contribute to a CAA-best 22 rushing touchdowns, while on defense, cornerback Christian Benford (league-high seven interceptions) became the first NFL Draft pick from Villanova since 2017. He was selected in the sixth round by the Buffalo Bills.

Offense: The Wildcats were a more-than-capable passing offense a year ago, averaging 210 yards through the air a game to rank fourth among the rest of its league peers, but a dynamic and potent rushing attack is the name of the game at Villanova. 

Four different players saw at least 70 touches on the ground a year ago, with the now-graduated Covington getting the most carries and yardage. Jackson and now-senior DeeWill Barlee, who were nearly even on rushes (100 and 96, respectively) last season, should get the bulk of the carries this time around, though Jackson is favored in red-zone and scoring situations as evidenced by his seven rushing scores in 2021 to Barlee's zero. 

Villanova has outright said on its team roster page that junior Connor Watkins is "expected to be the team's starting quarterback" to start out the new year, which makes the most sense, considering Smith's graduation and the fact that college experience under center on the roster is otherwise limited. 

Watkins has looked solid in spurts, going 15-of-19 for 199 yards and a touchdown over sporadic appearances in the past three seasons, but he may additionally be one of the few quarterbacks in America to also have experience as a punter, making 11 kicks in 2021. 

No matter how long it takes Watkins to settle into the starting role, however, he'll at least have one of the CAA's top returning wideout duos to help him out in the passing game, with junior Rayjuon Pringle (41 catches, 843 yards, eight touchdowns) and senior Jaaron Hayek (40 catches, 671 yards, nine touchdowns).

Defense: 'Nova had a smashmouth defense pretty much all across the board a year ago, but the secondary was especially vicious with the Wildcats tallying the most interceptions (19), fewest passing touchdowns allowed (nine) and fewest passing yards per game allowed (162.4) league-wide in 2021. 

Yes, having an NFL Draft pick as a star cornerback helped with that matter, but players like now-sophomore defensive back Ethan Potter (49 tackles, one interception) and now-junior corner Elijah Glover (two interceptions) played their parts, too. 

Ultimately, however, the Villanova coaching staff has a massive task on its hands in replacing all the defensive talent that left since the 2021 season ended. 

Rhyne is gone, along with the three other top tacklers (a group that includes All-CAA second team interior lineman Malik Fisher), and Benford's production in defending the pass obviously will be missed. 

One of the obvious replacements for Rhyne at linebacker appears to be in-league transfer Dan Damico, a sixth-year senior who spent the previous five seasons at Albany and earned an All-CAA second-team selection with the Great Danes in the spring 2021 season. 

Still, he could get some help at the spot from another new face in Rice transfer and senior Antonio Montero, who had 201 total tackles in 38 games played for the Owls at the FBS level. 

Defensive line probably will be the biggest question mark, with sophomore Bryce Ganious (5.5 tackles for loss, three sacks) likely poised for a larger role in the trenches after a promising first college season.

Wild card: Here's a wild but true stat: Villanova, since the CAA started sponsoring a conference championship in football in 2007, has never won an outright league title. The 2009 national championship team didn't do it (it shared the CAA crown with Richmond), the 2010 FCS semifinalist squad didn't do it and none of the five playoff-bound teams since then have done it. 

Of the nine times since 2007 the CAA championship wasn't shared, James Madison came out on top four times, more than any other school. 

This season, for the first time in CAA football history, the Dukes aren't around to try and do that again, having left the league in the offseason to play FBS football in the Sun Belt Conference. 

That leaves the door wide open for Villanova, one of the league's most consistent top programs, to establish itself as the new top dog in the room. 

Opposing coaches and media relations directors seem to think the Wildcats have the ability to take advantage, as 'Nova was named the favorite in the league's preseason poll released last month, but with two new schools (Monmouth and Hampton) also in the fray, and old rivals like Delaware and Richmond in hot pursuit, certainly nothing is being handed to Villanova on a silver platter right now. 

But if there's any team in the CAA with the best chance to establish itself as the league's new team to beat, it probably is the Wildcats.

Game To Watch: Villanova Vs. Monmouth

The home game against Delaware in the final week of the regular season could go in this slot as being a potential conference-title decider, but the nod in the category will go to the meeting with Monmouth on Sept. 24. It will act as one of the first major games of the Hawks' CAA welcome tour. 

Monmouth won two Big South Conference titles out of a possible three in its final years in the league, while quarterback Tony Muskett (3,690 passing yards, 34 touchdowns in 15 college games) has the talent to immediately be one of the top gunslingers of his new conference. 

Though the Hawks will play a CAA opener against New Hampshire before it travels to play 'Nova, how they handle the Wildcats probably will prove to be a barometer for how the sudden adjustment to the competition is going. 

The two schools have only met once before, in 2011, with Monmouth beating Villanova 20-9 in a non-conference matchup. Now, 11 years later, they'll do battle again as conference foes.