SO, WHAT does Villanova's football team do for an encore?

In December, the Wildcats completed a 14-1 season by winning their first FCS national championship, 23-21, over top-ranked, unbeaten Montana in Chattanooga, Tenn. Now, they have just about everything back, including Walter Payton Award candidate Matt Szczur at receiver. To the surprise of no one, they're starting at No. 1 in the polls.

Which mostly means one thing.

"It won't be easy at all," said senior quarterback Chris Whitney, a product of St. Joseph's Prep. "It's a new season. We're trying to do it again.

"We're trying to keep all that [expectation] stuff out of the locker room. I think we have the same goals as last year. We want to win each game. That hasn't changed. We've just got to take it one step at a time.

"We know teams are going to be coming at us. But toward the end of last season, that was pretty much the case anyway. When you're the No. 2 seed in the playoffs, there's kind of a bull's-eye on your back. So it'll be like a continuation of what we've already experienced . . .

"Last year was unbelievable. But we had our celebration. That's long gone and over with. It's time to start fresh."

Point well taken. From 1998 to 2008, four Colonial Athletic Association programs hoisted the ultimate trophy. None was able to make it past the quarterfinals the subsequent season. One didn't even make it back to the playoffs. This group, at least on paper, looks as well-positioned as anybody to give it a legit go.

Then again, getting through the CAA in one piece can sometimes be the most daunting part of the journey.

"We'll get everybody's best game, that's a given," said head coach Andy Talley. "We have to play to that. We really concentrate on our league. I do think there's an attitude that carries over, having played at the highest level.

"History shows that if you make the playoffs out of our league, you have a great chance to make a run at it, if you get a good seed. So there's very little margin for error. You're being set up to fail, really. We've never done this before. It's certainly exciting. But I think our kids understand how tough it's going to be."

It gets going tomorrow night at Lincoln Financial Field against Temple. Last September, the Wildcats scored 13 consecutive points in the closing 10 minutes to win by three on a last-play field goal. They ended up getting three home games in the playoffs. If they'd lost, maybe they don't. And perhaps it makes a difference.

The line is often that fragile.

The remainder of the schedule also contains more than enough potential line-breakers. Five of the other nine CAA teams are in the Top 25, with three in the first 10. And that doesn't even include Penn, which always seems to produce too much drama for 'Nova Nation. So it's probably going to be anything but boring.

"It's a different feeling, to be getting a lot more attention now, but it doesn't matter," said senior Ben Ijalana, who may be the highest-rated offensive lineman in FCS. "There's still games to be played. Winning the CAA is a big achievement in itself.

"You can say the pressure's there, but we've been in a lot of big games. We know what we need to do. We have to get a good seed, and go from there. It's important to keep moving forward."

There are depth issues along both lines, but because of scholarship numbers you could say that about any team at this level. And how many of them would trade rosters with Talley?

"We always expect nothing less than the best," said senior linebacker Terence Thomas, who had 116 tackles [68 solos] a year ago. "We're appreciative of being voted No. 1, but we're here to work to make sure we stay that way. We'll see if it's more difficult. We have to be ready. We only know one way to do it. It's taken us far."

Maybe it'll take them back.

"It's awesome, to be back with most of the guys who won a national title," said Szczur, who spent the summer as a minor league outfielder in the Chicago Cubs' system. "The only thing we're focused on is trying to get better, every day, see how it works out.

"Hopefully we'll have another great season . . . exceed the expectations."