By Chuck Burton
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — The numbers on the Patriot League preseason poll were fairly resounding.
On paper, with Lehigh garnering 11 out of a possible 12 first-place votes and a statistically perfect score of 60, the Mountain Hawks were essentially the unanimous choice to win a third consectutive Patriot League title.
Yet the talk around media day was not one of dynasties.
To a person, everyone was talking about the little things that separate victory and defeat – and the amount of parity, top to bottom, in the Patriot League this year.
"We're right there with everyone in the league," Holy Cross head coach Tom Gilmore said, whose Crusaders were picked second in the poll. "You just need to find a way to do things just a little bit better, work just a little bit harder, and call the right play just one more time. The difference between great and good programs is your ability to win those close, important games late in the season to capture the title."
Gilmore, enetering his ninth year as Holy Cross' head football coach, probably knows this better than most, having come oh-so-close to capturing the Patriot League title a bunch of times during his coaching career.
But it seemed like every coach and player at media day, far from conceding the season to Lehigh, seemed to be saying, in their own way, that the margin for the Patriot League title could be theirs if their team does the little things.
"We have to play Colgate football, win the close games, forget about last year, be smart enough to know we're not going to beat anybody by showing up," head coach Dick Biddle told Paul Reinhard of the Morning Call in his inimitable way. "I think we are kind of under the radar. We have some kids that are hungry; we have a chance to be pretty good."
"I have no control over the preseason poll," Lafayette quarterback Andrew Shoop told Brad Wilson of the Express-Times about his Leopards, who were picked fifth. "But we can control what the postseason poll looks like if we take care of business." (Though cagey head coach Frank Tavani also quipped, "It's higher than I would have had us, the way we have played the last two seasons.")
The poll also provided plenty of potential fodder for Georgetown, who went 7-4 last year and was one win away from their first-ever Patriot League Championship, and Bucknell, who achieved a winning record under head coach Joe Susan after a 1-10 season after returning to Lewisburg.
But while their fourth and sixth-place finishes in the poll, respectively, might have provided lots of stuff for their respective bulletin boards, no Hoya or Bison would have any of it.
"I was surprised, to be honest," said Georgetown quarterback Isaiah Kempf, "but I guess Georgetown has to earn respect in the league, so we have to go out on the field and prove it."
"I don't think this is going to be any more motivation than we already have," linebacker Robert McCabe said. "Even last year we thought we could win the championship. This year, it's no different."
Bucknell head coach Joe Susan, too, didn't really put much stock in the polls one way or another, or the fact that his team was picked last.
"That doesn't bother me at all," he said. "People might say that a poll can be an incentive, give you fodder, but I've always felt if you need a poll to create incentive, you've got problems."
Susan praised his still-young team about having a good approach on how to be succesful in the league.
"One of the things I think that our kids do a good job with is: they're not interested in things that are two months down the line. I think what we've done is gotten them in the habit of simplifying goals. Like: what do I have to do to have a good media day? What do I have to do this Thursday? If you do it that way, things get a lot simpler."
"We're all guilty of that to some degree or another. Before we play Delaware, we have to play Marist. Before we play Marist, we need to get through the preseason. Before we do that, we have to get through our conditioning tests."
Fordham was ineligible for the preseason poll, but first-year head coach Joe Moorhead talked about some related goals, about his Ram players getting on the post-season All-Patriot League team.
"We'd like to see more guys get on the end-of-season recognition list," he said, "all of this in the context of team success. With team success comes individual recognition."
Even Lehigh head coach Andy Coen seemed to want to emphasize to his team the thin margin between championships and being close to a championship.
"I like the fact that our senior group can point back to where we were when we started this run of success," he said. "They'll all tell you. Four years ago, the difference between 4-7 and 9-2 was this," putting his thumb and forefinger together, separated by an inch.
"It's a fine line. We have to be on our toes, right from the get-go."
About the only thing that's clear in this 2012 Patriot League season is that the separation between worst and first could be very, very slight.
And it will most likely come down to the team that does the little things best that will come away with the championship and the autobid to the FCS playoffs.
"I think this could be the most competitive Patriot League season maybe ever," Gilmore said.