The Colonial Athletic Association has earned a reputation as the premier Football Championship Subdivision conference in the nation in recent years.
The University of Maine remains one of 11 teams in the league, but must continue to work hard to remain competitive against the likes of William & Mary, Delaware and James Madison.
Reflecting the recent success of those perennial conference title contenders, and UMaine’s 4-7 record (3-5 CAA) last season, coach Jack Cosgrove’s Black Bears have been picked to finish ninth this season in a vote of the league’s head coaches and media relations personnel.
“We’re probably more of an afterthought down here than I’d like to be, but that’s the way it is,” said Cosgrove, referring to representing the CAA’s northernmost program at the CAA Media Day in Baltimore. “You get a little feisty in that regard.”
William & Mary earned 12 first-place votes to earn the label as CAA preseason favorite for 2011. The Tribe earned a share of the CAA regular-season title along with Delaware last season.
James Madison was picked to finish second with four first-place votes, followed by Delaware (2), Richmond, Villanova, Rhode Island (1), Maine, newcomer Old Dominion and Towson.
Senior safety Jerron McMillian was UMaine’s lone representative on the CAA preseason all-conference team. The 5-foot-11, 215-pounder was the Bears’ fourth-leading tackler last season with 58 and also registered two interceptions and a quarterback sack.
“Jerron’s a heck of a football player for us and I think his best football is still in front of him,” Cosgrove said. “He’s been one of those guys this summer who’s really excited me simply because he’s got a big smile on his face whether he’s got workout gear or a football uniform on.”
Cosgrove, who offered he is probably last on the list of the league’s head coaches in terms of interview requests at the annual event, continues to field questions about UMaine’s future in the CAA.
“That’s probably the question being asked more than our future this season as a team,” Cosgrove said. “That is in the air because of what’s transpired in the past couple of years. You can’t get away from things that are that obvious.”
In 2009, the CAA lost two teams when Northeastern and Hofstra disbanded their programs. Since the end of last season, Rhode Island and Massachusetts have since announced their intention to leave the conference, the Rams after the 2012 campaign and the Minutemen after this season.
The defections have led to a continued southward shift in terms of the geographic center of the CAA, which will continue to put a financial strain on the likes of UMaine and New Hampshire. Those teams will face increased travel costs as their New England rivals drop off the schedule.
“The one thing that I don’t want the label around our program, because of what’s transpiring is, ‘woe is us,’ ” explained Cosgrove, who continues to promote the benefits of his program to its student-athletes, the UMaine campus and the state.
“It’s not like we can’t provide influence and show some leadership qualities in the future of football at Maine,” he said. “We believe in the game. We believe in the league we’re in. We’re going to continue to battle to be a part of this league.”
Cosgrove pointed to UMaine’s outstanding donor support, led by the Alfond and Morse families, along with a strong alumni group, as key elements of the program as it moves forward.
“We can do something about our future in this game by being successful in all parts of our program,” Cosgrove said. “If we are, we’re going to grow and we’re going to have an impact on our campus, in our state, in this league.”
Running backs Jonathan Grimes of William & Mary and Andrew Pierce of Delaware were chosen the preseason offensive players of the year, while linebacker Tyler Holmes of Massachusetts was the pick on defense.
UMaine was picked seventh out of 10 teams in last season’s preseason sampling and wound up finishing ninth. In 2009, the Bears finished second in the North Division (5-6, 4-4 CAA) and fifth overall after being chosen third in the North Division in the preseason poll.