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UNH one win away from CAA championship, automatic playoff bid

DURHAM – If New Hampshire loses to Towson on Saturday in the regular-season finale, there are 16 different scenarios that could follow as the Colonial Athletic Association determines its champion. But the No. 7/7 Wildcats (8-2) can eliminate the confusion and tiebreakers by doing exactly what they’ve done in their last six games – win.

If the ’Cats can beat No. 19/16 Towson (6-4), they will clinch the CAA championship and the automatic bid to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs that goes with it.

“We’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” left tackle Seamus O’Neill said. “It’s obviously our goal to win the CAA, and now that we have the opportunity, everyone on the team is all excited. When we’re practicing, everyone is out there hooting and hollering and ready. We call it ring week, as people say, and everyone is really excited for this opportunity.”

Even if the Wildcats do lose on Saturday, it’s hard to imagine them not getting an invite to their ninth consecutive FCS tournament, extending what is already the longest active streak in the country. Heck, chances are good UNH will still be the CAA champion with a loss – 10 of those 16 possible scenarios have New Hampshire wearing the conference crown even if Towson wins. The Wildcats, of course, would rather take the straightforward road into the playoffs.

“You put yourself in a place where you control your own destiny, and the kids have worked very, very hard for this; give them a lot of credit,” UNH Coach Sean McDonnell said. “They’ve done everything we asked them to do and put themselves in a position in November to be playing for a championship. There’s not much more you can ask for as a college football player.”

The Wildcats reached this place by posting a 6-1 mark in the CAA. The lone blemish was a 64-61 loss at Old Dominion on Sept. 22. The Monarchs are also 6-1 in league play heading into the final week, but they’re ineligible to win the championship because they’re leaving the CAA after this season.

UNH did, however, get some help in simplifying the title equation when James Madison lost to Villanova last week. That left JMU and Villanova at 5-2 in the CAA, tied for second along with Towson and Richmond. If Towson beats UNH, they are the champions in four of the 16 scenarios and Villanova would be champion in two of the 16. Richmond does not own any of the tiebreakers and is out of the running.

While the JMU loss did have a meaningful impact on the Wildcats, it was not a popular topic of discussion in Durham this week.

“Not one kid brought it up to me and not one kid said anything to any of us about it. Again, they know what’s at stake,” McDonnell said. “JMU, ODU, Nova, Richmond, all those guys, I keep telling the kids don’t worry about what they’re doing, let’s just keep taking care of what we’re doing.”

“We kind of followed (the JMU/Villanova game), we were checking the scores just to see what was going in,” O’Neill said, “but we try to focus on what we have to do.”

USING THE BYE

UNH had the open date in its schedule last weekend, and it was a welcome break for some of the ’Cats.

“We got to rest our starters and the younger guys got to play a little more and honestly, we needed it, because it’s been a long season,” said O’Neill, who has been playing through lower body injuries for most of the year. “My legs feel better, every ache that was there feels a lot better. Getting the rest was pretty key at this point.”

But there’s also a fine line between getting rest and getting rusty. The New Hampshire coaching staff tried to keep its team fresh by having the first-team offense and defense go against each other (they usually don’t during the regular season), working at an up-tempo pace even more than normal, and running practices almost like they do during summer and spring sessions.

“Everybody got to heal up, but at the same time you got to keep working, you got to get better, you can’t stay stale, you go to keep moving on,” McDonnell said.

UNH may end up with another off day next Saturday. There are only four games in the first round of the FCS playoffs, with the other 12 teams in the field getting byes. The Wildcats will certainly get an off week if they beat Towson, and they might get one even if they don’t. McDonnell obviously wants the win, but he’s not sure about another bye.

“As crazy as I went last week, I’ll go crazier next week. You’re creatures of habit,” McDonnell said. “I like to stay in that rhythm, but you’ve got to deal with all of it. I can’t tell you what we’ll be doing a week from yesterday, I can’t tell you if we’ll be practicing or we may be done for the season, who knows? But I know this, we’ve got Wednesday, Thursday and Friday to get ready for Towson, let’s go take care of that.”

QUARTERBACK SCRAMBLE

There won’t be any change in the UNH quarterback situation, which means Sean Goldrich will start for a fourth consecutive game, Andy Vailas will also see time, the two of them will probably be on the field together for some plays, and just about anything is possible. Both will run, both could throw and they may be passing or handing off to one another.

“Both kids have done whatever we asked them to do,” McDonnell said. “They’re making each other better by working hard in practice and they’re really complementing each other pretty well.”

The rotation hasn’t caused any controversy in the locker room. The Wildcats don’t care who’s playing where or for how many snaps, they just want to win.

“On the offensive line we’re protecting whoever is back there,” O’Neill said. “I never really notice, they’re behind me, and I never really turn around. Sometimes I hear ’em and look back and ‘Oh, they’re both in.’ Or the defense is shouting out that both quarterbacks are in and I’m like, ‘Really? Oh wow,’ so it’s pretty funny. It’s just nice to know we have that extra weapon right there.”

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3371 or tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)

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