Villanova football coach Andy Talley has heard all the rumors.
He’s seen the stories across the national media by reporters who think his program could, or should, move up to the Big East. And he’s heard plenty from fans and alumni who dream of seeing big-time games on the Main Line.
But for all the noise that’s been made this summer, one voice has been noticeably absent from the conversation: that of the man who’s been at the helm of the Wildcats’ program for the last 25 years.
Yesterday afternoon, I went out to Villanova Stadium to talk to Talley, and he had plenty to say about his team’s present and future.
“I think right now, we’re where we want to be,” Talley told me. “We really haven’t had any hardcore negotiations that I know of with regards to it, but I think Villanova’s always interested in [the program’s] position.”
When Connecticut moved its football program from I-AA to the Big East at the beginning of this decade, there were discussions about Villanova also going up. It didn’t happen then, and from the conversation I had with Talley, it doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen now.
“I think you would probably, at least from Villanova’s standpoint, be open to seeing what the future could be,” Talley said. “But we made a big-time commitment to I-AA football the last time we looked at it, and the trustees made a very important statement. They said we want to play football at the highest level of I-AA, and they’ve stuck with that, and we’ve done that.”
Indeed they have, and the Wildcats have become so successful that they were able to beat a I-A team last year. Of course, it wasn’t just any team - it was Temple, a rival in many other sports over the years. At the time, the Owls were just starting their rise to prominence in the MAC, and all we knew about was the program’s past struggles. So Villanova’s win wasn’t too much of a surprise.
But I wonder what would have happened if Temple had won last year. Would the conversation that’s taken place this summer have happened? Probably, because Villanova is a Big East member in all other sports. It’s something to think about, though, as the two teams get set to face off again tomorrow night. Will the conversation change if Temple wins this time?
We know this much: Talley is only worried about what his team will do on the field. That’s more than enough for him, as it would surely be for any football coach.
“Playing against Temple in the first game is stressful,” Talley said. “You’ve got to be right, because athletically they’re really good.”
Talley also said he thinks the Owls have “quite a swagger” to them this year, thanks to last season’s success.
“I think they feel they can win the close game, like we beat them in the first game last year,” he said. “We were just hoping to get them in the fourth quarter, and hopefully our pedigree would prevail. But now they’ve gone and won some of those games in the fourth quarter.”
If Villanova is to beat Temple again, they’ll definitely need everything to go right. Much of the offensive burden will fall on Matt Szczur, whose role for the Wildcats almost defies any specific position. But there will be just as much pressure on a player with a very specific position: Chris Whitney, Villanova’s senior quarterback.
“Coming into this game last year, the big question mark we had was could [Whitney] make the kind of plays to win games for us in clutch situations, especially in the passing game?” Talley said. “We couldn’t run the ball a whole lot against Temple last year - we had to throw on them. He threw for 287 yards and made some big plays with his feet, and found some receivers downfield.”
Whitney proved his mettle many more times during the reuglar season, and we all know whta happened after that. Now Talley calls Whitney “the face of Villanova football, I think, at least offensively.”
“Even though Szczur has been spectacular, I think Whitney just brings that overall linebacker mentality to the offense,” Talley said. “He’s tough as nails, and he’s going to make plays.”
Whitney will be tested again this year, not just by Temple but by another stack of tough opponents in the Colonial Athletic Association. Talley expects the CAA to be just as good in 2010 as it was in 2009, when the conference regularly had six teams ranked in the I-AA Top 25.
“I think one of the sleepers is Delaware - they have 18 starters back and their quarterback [Pat Devlin] is great,” Talley said. “JMU is going to be good, as is William & Mary. Richmond, with the Southern Cal quarterback [transfer Aaron Corp], won’t miss a beat.”
There’s one other question for Villanova to answer this fall: will the program be able to really seize the attention of a fan base that pays much more attention to basketball? Talley hopes so.
“I’m hoping that the carryover from last year is big,” Talley said. “Last year, they all showed up at the Linc [for the Temple game], and we had a great student crowd.”
Tomorrow, Talley’s ship sets sail once again. If the journey is anything like last year’s was, it will be quite a ride.