Head Coach: Joe Susan, 7th season (28-38, 38-38 overall)
Biggest strength in 2016: Though the Bison disappointed in 2015, you can’t hang that on the backs of the defense, who was ranked 12th in the nation in scoring defense and 6th in red zone defense, holding high-flying offense like Colgate, Fordham and Lehigh well under their season scoring averages. Better yet, the unit is somewhat of a no-name defense filled with a bunch of talented players, most of them underclassmen. LB Ben Richard and LB Mark Pyles, two rising juniors, were No. 2 and No. 1 in tackles respectively last season.
Biggest Challenge In 2016: As great as the defense was, the offense really struggled, managing under 20 points per game last season and only eclipsing more than 25 points once last season – an overtime win vs. VMI. They were almost the mirror image of their defense – they were 5th worse in red zone scoring on offense.
Biggest Departures: The Bison return nine starters on defense, but the two players that did graduate were some very good players: SS Clayton Ewell, who played in every single game in his 44 game Bucknell career and notched 11 tackles for loss last season, and DE Jimmy King, who had 11 1/2 tackles for loss and 7 sacks as well.
Player To Watch: OL Julie’n Davenport has been attracting lots of attention from NFL scouts, and if you watch the 6’7, 315 lb senior from Paulsboro, New Jersey, it’s obvious. If they can find a bookend tackle on the other side of the line, it’s quite possible to see QB R.J. Nitti, RB C.J. Williams and WR Will Carter return to their 2014 form.
Biggest Game: vs. Colgate, 10/15/2016. The Bison will start with an uneven early-season schedule, with an away game at the defending NEC champions Duquesne and a bunch of other teams not expected to compete for FCS playoff spots. But in early October there will be two critical games that will dictate whether they will be contenders or pretenders. The game on October 8th won’t be easy at Holy Cross either, but no matter the outcome of the game against the Crusaders, the home tilt against the defending Patriot League champions, Colgate, will almost certainly be a must-win – and in the friendly confines of Christy Matthewson-Memorial Stadium. They came very close to knocking them off last season. Might being at home be the difference in 2016?
Rose-Colored Glasses Say: “Let’s face it – we only lose six senior starters, and we had one of the best defenses in the nation last year. We have our starting QB and our top two skill players returning from last year. Furthermore, our schedule aligns perfectly – some nice tune-ups until the meat of the difficult Patriot League schedule. If we beat Holy Cross and Colgate in consecutive weeks, we can win the whole thing.”
Glass Half Empty Says: “Let’s face it – with all those offensive players, what good did it do us in 2015? We couldn’t get out of our own way in the red zone, and it’s essentially the same team going out there this season. Nitti did well two years ago, as did Williams and Carter, and those three almost brought us the title – but what can they deliver us this season?”
Bucknell In Two Sentences: Once a team with perennially low expectations, Joe Susan’s Bison are now a program that has a team culture where competing for Patriot League championships are the goal and expectation. And if the golden trio of Nitti, Williams and Carter can capture a bit of the magic they had two years ago, they certainly have a decent shot.
CSJ Projected Ranking: 5th, Patriot League
Chuck has been writing about Lehigh football since the dawn of the internet, or perhaps it only seems like it. He’s executive editor of the College Sports Journal and has also written a book, The Rivalry: How Two Schools Started the Most Played College Football Series.
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