WILLIAMSBURG — Two weeks ago, the prognosis was grim. William and Mary's football team had just lost convincingly at Maine, its worst performance of the season, and an already thorny schedule was about to get cruel and unusual.
Now look. Riding a dominant defense, the Tribe has authored back-to-back conquests of ranked conference rivals to crack the national polls and enter the Championship Subdivision playoff conversation.
This progress is notable on the micro and macro fronts.
Micro: William and Mary rebounded admirably from the 34-20 loss to Maine to smother James Madison and New Hampshire 17-7 and 17-0, respectively. All three opponents were nationally ranked, as are the Tribe's next two: Delaware and Towson.
Macro: William and Mary (6-3, 3-2 Colonial Athletic Association) has tripled its victory total from last season, when the Tribe went 2-9, its worst record since 1980, coach Jimmye Laycock's first season. Reversing that slide, especially given the injuries that have struck offensive linemen, running backs and quarterbacks, is extra large.
That reversal isn't lost on Laycock — defeats gnaw at him even more than 3-putts — but pardon his disinterest in analyzing. Saturday's game at Delaware (7-2, 4-1) more than occupies his full attention.
"You go back to last year, what, they beat us 51-21?" Laycock said.
Well, there is that, the Tribe's most lopsided home loss since 1999, one that saw the Blue Hens score on a fumble, interception and blocked field goal return. There's also a Delaware team that last week scored 22 unanswered fourth-quarter points to shock Towson 32-31.
On the road. With a backup quarterback.
So stunned was Laycock that first thing Sunday morning he fired up the video.
"When you're down (31-10) and you come back and win, you're doing a lot of things right," he said. "That was impressive."
The catalyst was reserve quarterback Trevor Sasek, who passed for 330 yards and three touchdowns in place of Trent Hurley (upper body injury).
Delaware, William and Mary, Towson and JMU are the leading chasers of CAA frontrunner Maine (8-1, 5-0). The Black Bears figure to earn the conference's automatic playoff bid, with the others scrapping for two or, at best, three at-large invitations.
Laycock sees no reason to mention postseason to his players.
"These kids are smart enough," he said. "They know what's going on. They can figure things out. … They know how tough Delaware is."
Know what's going on, indeed.
"We talk about making the playoffs just about every (players) meeting we have," defensive tackle Tyler Claytor said. "We're on to Delaware (preparation) now. … We don't really care about being ranked."
The Tribe is 23rd and tied for 24th in the FCS polls, and with a 24-team playoff field, those rankings guarantee nothing. But Laycock likes his team's chances of sustaining its upward trajectory.
Defensive depth, maturity and the turnover-free performance last week against New Hampshire are among the sources of his optimism.
"Last week was a perfect opportunity, if you're looking for one, to come out flat," Laycock said. "After the big JMU game, homecoming, the big crowd, the big win and all that. And then you play at home again, not the same type of crowd, against another very good opponent."
The Tribe leads the FCS in scoring defense, yielding 12.4 points per game, but ranks a meager 87th in scoring offense at 22.1 points per game. That, too, could improve Saturday against a suspect Delaware defense that stands ninth among 11 CAA teams.
Veteran quarterbacks Michael Graham and Brent Caprio — the latter will start Saturday — have thrown only two interceptions in 204 passes, and top tailback Mikal Abdul-Saboor returned last week after missing three games with a sprained knee.
If nothing else, the schedule is testing the Tribe's endurance. From Oct. 5 through Nov. 23, William and Mary will have played eight games in as many Saturdays, six versus ranked opponents, the others against the Ivy League's second-place team (Penn) and perennial rival Richmond.
Three hurdles remain in that boot camp-caliber obstacle course. Clear them all, and the Tribe is playoff-bound. Stumble once, and brace for an anxious Selection Sunday.
"The rankings are nice, I guess, from a bystander's point of view," receiver Christian Reeves said, "but some ranked teams last year didn't make it to the playoffs. So we realize every game from here on out, with the position we're sitting in, is a playoff game."