Rebuilding is a long process in any league. For Colonial Athletic Association teams, with the route going straight through the gauntlet of the best conference in the nation, it’s even more arduous.
If the rebuild is successful, though, that same league strength can set the stage for significant returns. A year ago, Elon and Stony Brook broke out for their best seasons since joining the CAA. Both ended up ranked in the top 10 nationally, and both earned bids to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
There’s a long way to go, with only first steps taken, but the University of Rhode Island is hoping to be the next in line for an emergence and ensuing rise. The Rams followed up a season-opening win over Delaware with a 45-26 demolition of Albany Saturday at
Meade Stadium. Two days later, the Rams checked in at No. 25 in the STATS FCS Poll, ranked for the first time since 2005. And at least one weekly forecast of the FCS playoff field included the Rams.
“I’ve always said, the reason I came here is I think there’s tremendous potential, with the right formula, to put a championship contending football program together here,” head coach Jim Fleming said.
Several parts of the equation are still on the to-do list, facility improvements among them, but the CAA’s status and setup for an emergent team are already realities. Elon struggled through its first three years in the league, going 0-8 in conference play in its 2014 debut, 3-5 in 2015 and 1-7 in 2016. Last season, the Phoenix started CAA play with six straight wins and were ranked as high as seventh in national polls. The playoff berth was the program’s first since 2009.
Stony Brook had found more success than Elon since joining the CAA in 2013, going 4-4 twice and 3-5 two more times. Last year’s emergence culminated with a 7-1 league record and a spot in the top 10 of national polls. The Seawolves made the second round of the FCS playoffs.
URI saw both breakouts up close, losing 35-18 to Stony Brook early last season and nearly upsetting Elon in a one-point loss. The Rams finished 2-6 in conference play.
With the same number of league wins already under their belts this season, the Rams are angling for more, fully cognizant of where more victories could take them.
“Coming out of the gates with conference opponents, this gives us a very good measuring stick as to where we are as a football team,” Fleming said. “To be able to sit 2-0 with three non-conference games and an open week ahead of us, we have the opportunity to stay there for a little bit. This conference is a bear. We couldn’t be more thankful to come out with two quality wins so far.”
In the big picture, the program logged a win before the team even took the field this season, with the announcement of a donation ticketed for lights and turf at Meade Stadium. Fleming hopes it pairs with the on-field success as the start of something big.
“It’s a long-term commitment,” Fleming said. “We need to continue to do what we do on the field and control what we can do as players and coaches by winning football games. Long-term plan, the way I see it, we’re starting with the turf and the lights at Meade Stadium, but there’s a lot of opportunity to grow our facilities to be some of the finest in this league. And when you start growing your facilities, it enhances your recruiting, which enhances your opportunity to win championships on a continual basis. If that’s where we want to go with this program, I think it’s attainable.”
For now, the Rams are focused on what they can control, regardless of where it takes them.
“I told the kids all week long, each one of these games is a championship game,” Fleming said. “I think they have locked into that very closely.”