By Chuck Burton
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA — Some of the media couldn't believe it. Neither could Albany head football coach Bob Ford. Neither could Marty Fine, Bryant's head coach.
How could Wagner be picked seventh out of nine teams in the NEC coaches' poll to begin the season?
It's not so much that the coaches don't know what they're talking about — something that's impossible to say about a league that has the active leader in college football wins in Ford, or a 31 year veteran of the game in Wagner's Walt Hameline, who also won a Division III national championship as head of the Seahawks.
It's more a reflection as to how tough the NEC is, top to bottom, in 2012. While the conference is loaded with championship contenders, in the end there can be only one autobid to the FCS playoffs at the end of the season.
“I think a lot of it is based on the previous years and seniors graduating,” Hameline said in the pre-season conference call. “At the end of the day, so many things depend on how you start out and how things roll with injuries. I think if we were ranked No. 1, I’d be all pumped up. We’re ranked seventh, so it’s almost like ‘Hey, that’s OK. Let’s move on and take care of business and do what we need to do.’ ”
Not many teams featuring a former MLB player at quarterback, 25-year-old senior Nick Doscher, would be picked two from the bottom.
But every NEC coach knows how tough this league is top to bottom, a theme that worked its way through the entire teleconference.
While Albany was picked to repeat as NEC champions, the Great Danes lose some key all-league players on both sides of the ball. DE Eddie Delaney (58 tackles, 13 tackles for loss) and QB Dan Di Lella (2,548 yards passing, 26 TDs) were hugely productive players that need to be replaced.
"I see great enthusiasm, great, great competition, and we're competitive at just about every spot we have," Ford said, quietly and subtlely justifying the hype around the selection as top dog.
Duquesne quietly racked up a 9-2 season last year, and were probably an early Bucknell upset away from qualifying for the FCS playoffs for the first time ever as an at-large team.
“I like where our program is, but I also know that if you want to continue having success you have to continue working hard,” said Dukes coach Jerry Schmitt. “We had a productive offseason and we are excited to face a challenging
Bryant features an all-purpose back in Jordan Bryant that could be the biggest offensive threat in the whole conference, RB Jordan Brown.
"We got a lot of first downs [last year] with that kid," Bulldog coach Marty Fine said. "I think he's a pretty good player. We're trying to figure out how to best utilize his talents, get him in open space more. He's never complained for three years, and we're hoping his senior year is just as good."
Then there's Central Connecticut State, with two huge transfers at quarterback and running back that could vault them to the top.
"I'm fired up, life's good here up here in New Britain," CCCU coach Jeff McInerney said in the NEC teleconference. "We're expecting a lot of good things. We feel really, really good about this team. The core of this unit is very, very consistent. We're in a great league with a lot of great coaches, and we're going to try to get better every single day."
The one thing that's clear about the NEC this year is that, with its hall-of-fame head coaches and its pool of talented players, it's poised to be the most exciting in league history.
Five Players To Watch in 2012
1. QB Sean Patterson, Duquesne. The 6-2 lefty, who is 13-3 as a starter in his past 16 games, established himself as a dual-threat last year with 552 yards and two touchdowns rushing. But can he do it again with, essentially, an all-new receiving corps?
2. RB Chris Tolbert, Central Connecticut State. The Blue Devils' leading rusher last year with 816 yards and 5 TDs, he'll be the continuity of McInerney's triple-option attack with two new transfers in the skill positions. He could be the top rusher in a potentially devastating rushing attack — if everything comes together for CCSU.
3. RB Jordan Brown, Bryant. A dynamic, speedy back that can do it all, it's hard to see how he could top his junior year, where he scored 23 TDs and racked up an eye-popping 2,500 all-purpose yards. The question becomes: can the Bulldogs take some pressure off the Glastonbury, Connecticut native to give Bryant a shot at the FCS playoffs?
4. LB Jon Morgan, Albany. He enters the season ranked 23rd on UAlbany's career tackles chart with 193. But the bigger question is how the Copiague, New York native will be as a leader on the Great Dane defense, where Albany returns the best unit in the NEC.
5. QB Nick Doscher, Wagner. The cagey senior, the incredible athlete that was drafted by MLB's Kansas City Royals, comes back healthy after a junior year riddled with injuries. On paper, he has the potential to be a world-beater in his final year in Seahawk green. Will he finally fulfill his potential?
My Sleeper Player to Watch: RB Larry McCoy, Duquesne: The 5-11, 215-pound running back could be the "best rusher you don't know anything about", and if the Wyethville, Virginia native can duplicate his 1,381 yard, 12 TD rushing effort this year, the Dukes will be hard to stop. Last year, Duquense was 15th in the nation in rushing yards, partially due to Patterson's ability to take off with the football, but largely thanks to McCoy.
Predicted Order of Finish
1. Duquesne:Is this the year that coach Jerry Schmitt's Dukes finally get over the hump? Last year a 38-10 loss to Albany doomed 9-2 Duquesne, but this year, they'll get the Danes at home with revenge on their minds. It should be enough for their first-ever NEC title.
2. Albany: If "defense wins championships", legendary head coach Bob Ford's Great Danes would seem to have the edge, with three preseason all-NEC defenders returning. But it won't be easy, breaking in some key new players and needing to win at Rooney Field in Moon Township late in the year.
3. Bryant: The Bulldogs, in their first season of eligiblity for the FCS playoffs, probably have the best all-around athlete in the entire NEC with RB Jordan Brown. They're an intriguing X-factor in the NEC title race, but they'll need to develop some more weapons around Mr. Everything.
4. Central Connecticut State: Jeff McInerney, once again, has pulled together some interesting talent on the Blue Devils, including QB Nick SanGiacomo, a transfer from Tulane, and RB Rob Holloman, a transfer from Kent State. If he can get the CCSU triple-option-plus attack firing on all cylinders (modeled after Tom Osborne's offense at Nebraska and also his roots at Georgia Southern), it's easy to see the Blue Devils in the title mix.
5. Wagner: Count 'em: 14 returning starters, including dynamic QB Nick Doscher, return for Walt Hameline's Seahawks. But do they have enough overall talent to run with the big dogs of the NEC, though? If the answer is "yes", then they could add an FCS playoff appearance to Walt Hameline's impressive coaching career.
6. Monmouth: Kevin Callahan's pistol offense will feature a team with a ton of returning starters, including QB Kyle Frazier and LB Dan Sullivan. If they can stay healthy and the pistol fires more effectively than last year, they're another good sleeper pick to take the NEC championship.
7: Sacred Heart: A young team that looks like they're a year away, but skill players like QB Tim Little, RB Greg Moore, and RB Keshaudas Spence will make the Pioneers a fun team to watch.
8: Robert Morris: Head coach Joe Walton has 15 returning starters on his Colonials, and also feature a solid defensive line with DE Nolan Nearhoof and NG Farren Mason. But to improve on their 2-9 record from last year they'll need to retool their offense behind senior QB Jeff Sinclair, which was 114th in overall offense last year.
9: St Francis (PA): Red Flash head coach Chris Villareal has the opposite problem: a decent offensive attack led by senior RB Kyle Harbridge and senior QB John Kelly, but a defense that gave up points in droves. If they can pull together a decent defense, a winning record might be in reach.