EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (STATS) – How Bryant University learned Thursday morning that it’s the favorite in the Northeast Conference football race was a sign that the times, they are a changin’.
The NEC’s preseason poll was unveiled in real time.
Maybe somebody informed coach Marty Fine with a tweet.
“I grew up with a rotary telephone and no cable TV – I had five channels,” the 54-year-old Fine said. “To me, the changes are unbelievable.”
To celebrate the upcoming 20th season of NEC football, the conference brought members of its seven programs to MetLife Stadium for its first-ever media day. Actually, it was more like social media day, because the NEC went out and brought its conference to the FCS world and beyond.
Not only were there the standard components of any media day – interviews, photos, dignitaries – but the NEC also had a live 90-minute webcast for followers everywhere. It featured the head coach and two players from each program, even a roundtable of recent football alumni.
In combining new media with the old, the NEC continued to provide access and live content in a modern world. Players were talking about how teammates, friends and family would be watching the event unfold.
“I had a Google Hangout (video chat) session during the season,” All-America wide receiver Chris King of Duquesne said, “and this is like 10 times better than what I could ever imagine.”
“For the last five, six, seven years, the progression has been amazing,” NEC commissioner Noreen Morris said. “On the field, off the field, the branding that we’ve been doing. So we thought this was the perfect complement.”
The forward thinking of the day seemed to extend to the NEC’s preseason poll. Bryant was installed as the favorite despite having never won the conference title previously.
The Bulldogs were on the cusp of wearing the crown last season – their sixth in the NEC – but they ran out of gas by losing their final two conference games of an 8-3 season. This year’s offense should be explosive again with quarterback Dalton Easton and running backs Ricardo McCray and Paul Canevari working behind a veteran line, but last year’s strong defense lost six starters.
“If it were a one-week season, I think we’re as good as anybody,” Fine said. “Unfortunately, it’s an 11- or 12-week season, and we’re not.”
With seven road games and only four in Smithfield, Rhode Island, Fine added, “We have concerns. I like our team. But I think it’s going to be a long, hard year.”
NEC football is defined by strong running games and physical play, and the title races since the conference gained an automatic bid to the FCS playoffs in 2010 have been highly competitive. In fact, each of the five title races since then have ended in a championship tie.
Sacred Heart has earned a share of each of the last two titles – with Duquesne in 2013 and Wagner last season – and been the NEC’s playoff representative. The Pioneers have their sights on a three-peat, but after losing 26 seniors, they are vulnerable. They were picked third in the preseason poll behind Duquesne, which has been knocking at the door of a playoff bid and appears quite talented after suffering through an injury-plagued season.
“The expectations are going to stay the same,” Sacred Heart quarterback RJ Noel said. “It’s going to be the same for every other team in the conference as well. The goal is to win the NEC championship at the end of the year.”
The depth and topsy-turvy nature of the NEC was evident in Saint Francis. Coach Chris Villarrial’s squad was picked only fifth in the preseason poll yet tied with Sacred Heart for the most all-conference selections with six.
NORTHEAST CONFERENCE PRESEASON POLL=
1. Bryant (4 first-place votes)
2. Duquesne (1)
3. Sacred Heart (2)
5. Saint Francis
6. Central Connecticut State
7. Robert Morris
NORTHEAST CONFERENCE PRESEASON TEAM=
QB – RJ Noel, Sacred Heart, Jr.
RB – Khairi Dickson, Saint Francis, Sr.
RB – Ricardo McCray, Bryant, Sr.
WR – Tyler Dube, Sacred Heart, R-Sr.
WR – Chris King, Duquesne, Sr.
WR – Chad Ward, Bryant, Sr.
TE/HB – Ryan Owens, Wagner, Sr.
OL – Nick Bartoli, Sacred Heart, Sr.
OL – Matt Diaz, Wagner, Jr.
OL – Tyler Hurd, Central Connecticut State, Sr.
OL – Abe M’Bodj, Bryant, Sr.
OL – George Smith, Bryant, Jr.
DL – Asia Bolling, Central Connecticut State, Jr.
DL – Connor Caveney, Sacred Heart, Sr.
DL – Al Page, Wagner, Sr.
DL – Zach Zidian, Duquesne, Sr.
LB – Connor Candito, Sacred Heart, R-Sr.
LB – Sam Martello, Duquesne, Sr.
LB – James Rentz, Sacred Heart, Jr.
LB – Nathan Stone, Duquesne, So.
DB – Trenton Coles, Duquesne, Jr.
DB – Jevon Elmore, Central Connecticut State, Jr.
DB – Lorenzo Jerome, Saint Francis, Jr.
DB – DaQuan Minter, Saint Francis, Sr.
PK – Lance Geesey, Saint Francis, Jr.
P – Zach Drayer, Saint Francis, Jr.
RS – Lorenzo Jerome, Saint Francis, Jr.
FIVE KEY NORTHEAST CONFERENCE GAMES=
Duquesne at Bryant (Oct. 17) – In a usually deep title race, it must feel way too early for either of the top two teams in the preseason poll to suffer a loss.
Duquesne at Robert Morris (Oct. 24) – The Steel City Showdown simply bleeds toughness.
Duquesne at Sacred Heart (Nov. 14) – Do you get the feeling title contender Duquesne has a tough road schedule?
Sacred Heart at Bryant (Nov. 14) – Bryant sat alone atop the NEC standings last year until a 14-7 loss at Sacred Heart in mid-November.
Wagner at Sacred Heart (Nov. 21) – A meeting of last year’s co-champs. Will the title be on the line again?
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