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College

NEC jumps into playoff picture

| Thursday, Aug. 26, 2010

Just how far has the Northeast Conference progressed in college football?

Well, consider that many of its members not long ago were competing at the club level or in NCAA Division III, while others still had not even started their programs.

Only three years ago did the league's newest member, Bryant, make the jump from NCAA Division II, last season posting a 4-4 conference mark in its first year of playing a full NEC schedule.

"The parity in our conference is certainly going to help prepare our league champion this year for the playoffs," said longtime Robert Morris coach Joe Walton, whose Colonials are expected to challenge for the NEC's first automatic bid to the NCAA Division I FCS playoffs after the league's coaches, in a preseason poll, picked Robert Morris to finish second behind Central Connecticut State in the regular-season standings.

"There's an opportunity for one of the teams in our league to go to the FCS playoffs and show how far we've come as a conference."

As the NEC enters the 2010 season preparing for its first year of playoffs eligibility, a daunting task awaits the league winner.

"What the automatic bid to the FCS playoffs does is take an already even and competitive Northeast Conference and makes it even more so," Monmouth (N.J.) coach Kevin Callahan said. "The champion (will) have an opportunity to make history. I'm confident the champion of the NEC this year will not back down from the task of going up against a perennial FCS power."

The NEC is not a full-scholarship conference, and it may never be. But the numbers are getting better. Whereas a full-scholarship FCS program can offer up to 63, there is talk of NEC schools eventually increasing to 40.

"There is no minimum that a school has to give," Callahan said, "so it varies across the conference. Obviously, there's a difference there. It will be tough for our league champion to go up and smack other teams around."

Yet, the NEC has notched some impressive victories in recent years. Twice in 2006, NEC schools defeated nationally ranked teams. Albany (N.Y.) beat then-No. 11 Delaware and Central Connecticut state bested then-No. 13 Georgia Southern.

Just last year, Albany scored another major triumph for the NEC when it lured then-No. 20 Maine to visit and handed the Black Bears a 20-16 setback.

Albany, in fact, has enjoyed a productive run of late, winning its second consecutive conference championship in 2008 with a 7-0 record (9-3 overall) before falling to Central Connecticut State last season for its first NEC loss in 19 games and losing out on a possible third regular-season title in a row.

Albany's three losses in '08 came to teams in the top 12 among nationally ranked FCS schools -- 28-16 to then-No. 5 Massachusetts; 32-24 to then-No. 10 New Hampshire; and 38-7 to then-No. 12 Delaware.

Albany's success, in part, is a spin-off from legendary Albany coach Bob Ford, who enters this season ranked first among active Division I FCS coaches.

"One thing about the Northeast Conference is you're not going to out-coach anybody anymore," said Walton, the former New York Jets coach and Steelers offensive coordinator who has coached Robert Morris for every one of its football seasons since the program's inception in 1993. "There are good coaches throughout our conference, and every week is a battle for every team."

Meanwhile, Robert Morris' disastrous start to the 2009 season saw the Colonials open with six consecutive losses, including a 34-20 decision at Duquesne. They rallied, however, to close the season on a five-game winning streak.

Despite beating Robert Morris last season, Duquesne has struggled since joining the NEC in 2008. The Dukes, 3-8 overall in 2009, made the move following the abolishment of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Football League, where they had been the premier program for years.

"It's been a great rivalry. This just adds a little bit more to it as we're both playing for the same title," Duquesne coach Jerry Schmitt said. "The past two years in the conference, we've had some real battles. We're hoping this year it'll be even more elevated because of the implications in the conference, and we think it'll be that way."

The conferences

Northeast Conference

» Central Connecticut State -- The Blue Devils are expected to defend their league title and earn the conference's first automatic bid to the Division I FCS playoffs.

» Robert Morris -- The Colonials closed 2009 with five victories on the strength of a stingy defense, led by returning LB Alex DiMichele (Sto-Rox), who finished with 109 tackles.

» Albany (N.Y.) -- The Great Danes hope to overcome the loss of eight all-NEC players to graduation.

» Wagner -- Wagner is pinning its hopes on QB Nick Doscher, the NEC offensive rookie of the year, and RB Dominique Williams, who combined for nearly 3,000 yards of total offense.

» Monmouth (N.J.) -- The Hawks return NEC defensive player of the year LB Jose Gumbs.

» Bryant -- While the Bulldogs are in their final year of transition into Division FCS, they have a veteran defense, led by DBs Samad Wagstaff and Addison Lynch.

» Duquesne -- The health of the Dukes is paramount after the team was ravaged with injuries in 2009.

» Sacred Heart -- Senior QB Dale Fink has passed for more than 2,000 yards in each of the past two years and has a school-record 67 touchdown passes.

» St. Francis (Pa.) -- Former NFL all-pro guard Chris Villarrial takes over as coach of a struggling Red Flash program that has won just four NEC games since 1996.

Missouri Valley Football Conference

» Youngstown State -- The Penguins were slotted seventh in coach Eric Wolford's first season, which opens Sept. 4 at Penn State.

Players to watch

» Alex DiMichele, Robert Morris, Sr., LB, 6-2, 240 -- The Sto-Rox High School product has 225 tackles in two seasons since transferring from Temple.

» Scott Lewis, St. Francis (Pa.), Sr., LB, 5-11, 205 -- Lewis last season led Division I FCS in tackles per game (12.1).

» Eric Rodemoyer, Youngstown State, Sr., OG, 6-3, 290 -- Rodemoyer, a transfer from West Virginia, was YSU's offensive lineman of the year in 2009.

GAMES TO WATCH

» Southern Illinois at Youngstown State, 4 p.m., Sept. 25, Stambaugh Stadium

» Duquesne at Robert Morris, noon, Oct. 30, Joe Walton Stadium

» Central Connecticut State at Robert Morris, noon, Nov. 6, Joe Walton Stadium

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