Maine football coach Jack Cosgrove looked back at last year's game against Towson, and he realized something.
"It's almost difficult to imagine those two teams playing in this game today," Cosgrove said.
Nearly a year ago, on Nov. 13, 2010, Maine defeated Towson 28-18 in a game filled with penalties and turnovers at Johnny Unitas Stadium. At that point in the season, the Tigers and the Black Bears had relegated themselves to the fact that they would not play any postseason football, and both teams finished 11th and ninth, respectively, in the Colonial Athletic Association.
This Saturday, the Tigers (6-2, 4-1 CAA) face the Black Bears (7-1, 5-0) in Orono, Maine — a clash between the league's second- (Towson) and first-place (Maine) teams. Maine is on a six-game winning streak and its only loss this season came Sept. 10, 35-29 loss at Pittsburgh.
"Jack's a great guy and a hell of a coach," Towson coach Rob Ambrose said during this week's CAA teleconference. "He has grown those guys and grown them up. They're tremendously competitive. They play together and there's great chemistry in all three facets of the game.
"But playing against them, and teams like them, it's life in the CAA. Week to week, I'm pretty humble."
And though Ambrose wouldn't necessarily say it, Towson will play in one of its most meaningful games in his three seasons at the helm. With a win, the Tigers can move into a tie for first place in the CAA and can maintain their chances at receiving a bid to the 20-team NCAA FCS playoffs.
This season's success at Towson, fellow CAA coaches said, is a product of several factors.
Cosgrove points to the structure that Towson's program provides its players, as well as the commitment the players have given the program both in the preseason and the offseason — a critical time in any college football program in preparation for each season.
Villanova coach Andy Talley singled out Towson quarterback Grant Enders (Old Mill) as one of Towson's foundations. Enders, a sophomore from Millersville, is 113-for-167 passing for 1,388 yards, six interceptions and nine touchdowns in seven games this season.
"That guy is a playmaker," said Talley, whose team lost 31-10 to Towson on Sept. 10 at Johnny Unitas Stadium. "He's settled the team down, and he's given them consistency. They're good defensively, and their quarterback is the difference. That's what's settled that team down and given them a chance to potentially win the [CAA] title."
The approach Towson takes, William and Mary coach Jimmye Laycock said, is key for the Tigers.
"They haven't tried to do it with smoke and mirrors," said Laycock, whose team lost 38-27 to Towson on Oct. 22 in Williamsburg, Va. "They're looking not just to get a quick fix, but to build the program."
While the Tigers have become one of the CAA's breakout teams this season, Ambrose admitted Saturday's 35-30 loss to Delaware may be a turning point of sorts for the Tigers.
"With this success came distractions," Ambrose said. "Delaware kind of put that in the forefront and the fact that we lost, the kids now have a chance to refocus and realize what got us here."
Success for any football program, Cosgrove said, "doesn't happen overnight."
Towson has fielded intercollegiate football since 1969, and has been a Division I-AA/Football Championship Subdivision program since 1987. But the Tigers played as a non-scholarship program in 1995 and 1996 before joining the Patriot League from 1997-2003. In 2004, the Tigers joined the Atlantic 10 conference, which became the CAA in 2007.
In 2009 and 2010, Towson had a combined three wins under Ambrose, including only one in the CAA — a 36-28 win over Rhode Island on Oct. 10, 2009. Now, the Tigers are playing for a shot at the top spot in the CAA, considered to be one of the strongest FCS leagues in the nation.
"It's a tremendous statement for the institution and the program as a whole," Ambrose said. "We have an administration that's backing football. They understand the importance of having a quality athletic program and a quality football team."
When it comes to charting the growth of a pair of upstart teams, Saturday's game in Orono will be a benchmark of sorts, not just for the Black Bears and for the Tigers, but for a new standout team in the CAA.
"Obviously, the game is huge because of the success both programs have had to this point," Cosgrove said. "We're very, very impressed with Towson and what they've done. And it speaks to the things we've done here, too."