When the University of Maine released its football schedule, its Oct. 2 home date with the University of New Hampshire might as well have already been circled in red ink.

Games with UNH and UMass always get the blood boiling in Orono. But don’t be surprised to see the Black Bears play with a little extra edge when William & Mary and James Madison are in town this fall.

It’s not because of anything that William or Mary or James Madison did necessarily. Both are expected to be among the Colonial Athletic Association elite this season, and Maine will probably have to beat one, if not both, to be a serious conference and FCS playoff contender.

It’s more guilt by association that will put targets on the two Virginia universities’ backs, at least if Jack Cosgrove’s memory is as long as I think it is.

Cosgrove attended the CAA’s media day July 28 and two weeks later he was still steaming from the line of questioning he got, particularly from the southern media.

The folks with the cameras, microphones, tape recorders and drawls didn’t want to know whether Warren Smith or Chris Treister would be starting at quarterback. They didn’t ask how Jared Turcotte was feeling. And they weren’t very concerned with whether last year’s green defense had matured into a cohesive unit.

What they wanted to know was whether Maine is the next Northeastern or Hofstra, or if it will go the way of Rhode Island.

Not that those aren’t legitimate questions. In the last year, the CAA’s northern contingent has taken more hits than Jacoby Ellsbury’s rib cage. Rhode Island announced it is moving to the less competitive Northeast Conference in 2013. Northeastern and Hofstra have dropped football altogether.

The South being, well, the South, doesn’t trust any college football program this side of the Mason-Dixon line. Folks down there wonder if, nay, expect more northern schools to bail on the church of pigskin when times get tough.

And times are definitely tough. The economy has athletic revenues staying stagnant at best, while costs keep increasing. Budgets are under siege and every scholarship is precious. 

Looking for more signs of strain at Maine, skeptics can point to the folding of the men’s soccer and women’s volleyball programs in recent years due to budget cuts, plus last week’s announcement that athletic director Blake James is leaving after a five-year stint.

Maine had two winning seasons in those five years and had a 5-6 campaign last year, so Cosgrove had to spend most of his time in front of the media touting the Black Bears’ ability to compete in what is widely considered the toughest conference in the FCS. Reaching the FCS playoffs two years ago and having the most active players on NFL rosters from an FCS Division I school are two facts he can always use to back up his argument.

Cosgrove calmly vented some of his frustration at a luncheon with the Maine media Wednesday, but you can bet he’ll be a bit more colorful and animated in reminding his team that its CAA, ahem, manhood is being questioned when the bullies from the South pay a visit.

Like it or not, folks down there are going to look upon this season as a referendum on Maine’s place in the CAA. And the conference is only going to get more of a Southern twang in the future, with Old Dominion scheduled to join in 2011 and Georgia State to follow in 2012.

Cosgrove insists Maine will be one of the teams there to greet them and that anyone banking on a rebirth of the Yankee Conference in the NEC had better not hold their breath. Given that Cosgrove has poured 18 years of his life into the program, it’s virtually impossible not to take him for his word, especially if, as some are suggesting, he is in line to replace James.

The Black Bears have more immediate issues to resolve heading into the season, such as picking between Smith and Treister, developing a more balanced offensive identity than they’ve had, finding a pass rusher to replace Jordan Stevens, and being a better second-half team. They have a tough 11-game schedule that will present just as many challenges from the likes of UNH and Villanova, so there isn’t any point in looking past anybody.

But still, a little North-South rivalry never hurt anybody, at least not for 145 years.

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