Last December’s trip to the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision semifinals has earned the University of Maine football team a measure of respect in the Colonial Athletic Association preseason poll announced Tuesday in Baltimore.
The Black Bears were projected to finish third among the league’s 12 teams, marking their best preseason ranking since the CAA merged its North and South divisions into a single entity beginning with the 2010 season.
UMaine had not been picked higher than sixth in any of the last nine CAA preseason polls, that sixth-place prediction coming in 2012.
Last year UMaine was picked eighth in the CAA preseason poll, only to capture its first league title since 2013 and then win two FCS playoff games to advance to the national semifinals for the first time.
“I’m pretty sure everybody in this conference is going to respect us now, or hopefully they do,” UMaine senior wide receiver and kick returner Earnest Edwards said during the CAA Media Day held at M&T Bank Stadium. “Going into last year nobody knew we were going to go as far as we did.
“Honestly, I feel like the chemistry we have in the locker room is going to go a long way,” he added.
James Madison University, which returns nine starters on offense and 10 on defense and is ranked No. 1 in the Hero Sports FCS preseason poll, received 20 of the 24 first-place votes and 238 total points from the CAA’s head football coaches and media relations directors to land the top spot in the CAA poll.
Towson University, led by senior quarterback Tom Flacco, the preseason CAA Offensive Player of the Year, garnered three first-place votes and 217 total points to place second while UMaine picked up the lone remaining first-place nod and 201 total points for its third-place selection.
UMaine hosts Towson on Sept. 14 but does not play James Madison during the regular season.
The Black Bears, guided by first-year head coach Nick Charlton, will feature a defense that returns eight starters after ranking No. 1 in the FCS last fall against the run, allowing just 79.2 yards per game.
“Can we be better than 2018? Sure, no doubt about it, and of course that’s the expectation,” Charlton said of his defensive unit. “But I want this team to be this team and with guys like (All-America cornerback) Manny (Patterson) playing back there and the people that have experience it makes me feel comfortable with what we have going on over there and continuing that ‘Black Hole’ legacy.
“You want a physical, aggressive mentality for your defense,” he added. “I feel like we have that.”
The Black Bears also return seven offensive starters from the 2018 squad that finished 10-4 after defeating Jacksonville State and Weber State in the FCS playoffs before falling in the semifinals at Eastern Washington.
UMaine, which begins preseason practices Aug. 1 and hosts Sacred Heart Aug. 30 to open its regular season, ranked fourth in the Hero Sports FCS national preseason poll.
Rounding out the top five in the CAA poll are Elon and Delaware, followed by Stony Brook, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Villanova, Richmond, William & Mary and Albany.
UMaine had six players at seven positions named to the preseason All-CAA first team, with Edwards selected at both wide receiver and kick returner. Joining Edwards on the first-team offense is junior offensive lineman Liam Dobson.
Patterson was one of four UMaine defenders selected to the All-CAA preseason first team, along with senior defensive lineman Keyon Whitaker, senior linebacker Taji Lowe and junior linebacker Deshawn Stevens.
Junior quarterback Chris Ferguson and senior defensive lineman Charles Mitchell were honorable mentions.
“We’re very fortunate we have a lot of players back, but it’s a different team,” Charlton said, “2017 was different than 2018, and the same thing goes for right now. It’s a challenge, but it’s the culture in the locker room that’s the big thing.
“One of the biggest things we’re talking about now is having pride in our program and discipline, and I think it’s really important to take that next step with what we want to do. This is a big-time Division I program and we need to carry ourselves that way, but we need to be disciplined to take the next step.”