When the Maine Black Bear football team battles New Hampshire for the Brice-Cowell Musket Saturday afternoon they will also be fighting for the opportunity to advance to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. The 24-team field for the tournament will be announced on Sunday, November 20 and a win by Maine would seemingly guarantee them a spot.
After this weekend’s action, James Madison University has clinched the CAA regular season title and the automatic qualifier that goes with it. The Dukes are 7-0 in league play and 9-1 overall and will earn a first round bye as one of eight seeded teams. Behind JMU is a log jam of four teams with identical conference records, as Maine, New Hampshire, Villanova, and Richmond are all 5-2. Of that group, Richmond is likely the only team that doesn’t need a win on Saturday to get into the playoff field. The Spiders are 8-2 and even if they were to lose at William & Mary, eight victories, including one over FBS opponent Virginia, ought to be enough. That leaves Villanova in a probable must-win at Delaware, since a 7-4 record with three conference losses won’t be good enough to get them to the post-season in veteran coach Andy Talley’s final season.
That brings us to Maine and New Hampshire. The rivalry has been pretty one-sided in recent years, as the Wildcats have taken thirteen of the last fourteen meetings. Sean McDonnell is one of the best coaches in the country and is riding the longest playoff streak in the FCS ranks but his team has been unusually inconsistent this year, as evidence by their 36-25 loss at home Saturday to Albany, in a game they led at one point 22-0. At 6-4 overall, and with no marquee victories, even a win at Orono might not be enough to get UNH into the playoffs, though given their history and the strength of the conference, seven wins and a 6-2 CAA record certainly makes a strong case. As for the Black Bears, their 7-4 mark might look a little better to the selection committee. Maine’s losses would be to FBS opponents UConn and Toldeo, conference champion JMU, and likely playoff team Villanova. The committee also likes to go with hot teams and a win on Saturday would give the Bears a 7-1 record since starting 0-3.
It’ll be a tall order for Maine but Joe Harasymiak and his staff may have found the right combination in what they rolled out at Stony Brook. A heavy dose of true freshman running back Josh Mack, an efficient Dan Collins, who shows the ability to check down and not rely on the long ball, the utilization of weapons like tight end Jeremy Salmon, and the aggressive, hard-hitting defense that the Black Bears are known for puts them in great position against a Wildcat team that has sputtered at times and may be without running back Dalton Crossan, who came out of the game against Albany after just five carries. A win for Maine will not only return the Brice-Cowell musket to Orono but may well be enough to get them back in the post-season for the first time since 2013.