(STATS) - Duquesne stood three spots outside the STATS FCS Preseason Top 25, and in most years, it would have been welcomed.
This year, it was a tad insulting.
The Northeast Conference keeps raising in stature, and Duquesne has been in a lead role, going 9-4 last season with a first-ever FCS playoff win, and, well, a No. 21 final ranking.
The A.J. Hines-led Dukes are a clear favorite in the conference, but 2018 co-champ Sacred Heart. Central Connecticut State, Saint Francis and others are part of a deep race of talented teams.
The NEC is drawing even more attention because of two programs joining the conference. Long Island is part of the standings and eligible for the title, making the race eight teams deep in 2019, but Merrimack isn't eligible until it has a full NEC schedule and completes its four-year transition from Division II.
Following is a predicted order of finish and a team-by-team breakdown of the 2019 NEC race:
2. Central Connecticut State
3. Sacred Heart
4. Saint Francis
7. Long Island
8. Robert Morris
Merrimack ineligible, not playing a full conference schedule
STADIUM: Arthur J. Rooney Athletic Field
HEAD COACH: Jerry Schmitt (92-62, 14 seasons; 120-83 overall)
2018 RECORDS: 9-4 overall, 5-1 (Tie/1st) - No. 21 in final STATS FCS Top 25
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 12 (5 offense/7 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Daniel Parr, QB, Sr.; A.J. Hines, RB, Sr.; Kellon Taylor, WR, Sr.; Bill O'Malley, TE, Jr.; Gabe Spurlock, OL, Sr.; Lyle Petrosky, OL, Jr.; Kam Carter, DL, Sr.; Mike O'Malley, DL, Sr.; Brett Zanotto, LB, Sr.; Spencer DeMedal, DB, Jr.; Leandro DeBrito, DB, Sr.; Reid Harrison-Ducros, DB, Sr.; Mitch MacZura, PK/P, Sr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Nehari Crawford, WR; Matt Fitzpatrick, OL; Jonathant Istache, DB
OUTLOOK: Coming off a season with its first FCS playoff win at Towson, the Dukes are favored to capture another NEC title and get back to the postseason. Their nonconference schedule will prepare them, including road matchups with Youngstown State, Dayton and New Hampshire. All-NEC QB Parr is back at the controls. While RB Hines, the 2018 NEC offensive player of the year, figures to reach a fourth straight 1,000-yard season on the ground, the Dukes are replacing four starters on the offensive line. The defense features a standout in each unit with DL Carter, LB Zanotto and CB Harrison-Ducros. Schmitt is five wins away from matching the school record and eight for his 100th at Duquesne.
2. CENTRAL CONNECTICUT STATE
LOCATION: New Britain, Connecticut
STADIUM: Arute Field
HEAD COACH: Ryan McCarthy (first season as interim head coach)
2018 RECORDS: 6-5 overall, 4-2 NEC (3rd)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 13 (7 offense/6 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Aaron Winchester, QB, Gr. (Georgia State grad transfer); Aaron Dawson, RB, Jr.; Drew Jean-Guillaume, RB, Sr.; Tyshaun James, WR, Jr.; Arthur Gilmore, Jr., TE, Sr.; J'Von Brown, OG, Sr.; Connor Mignone, OT, Jr.; Cole Phelps, OG, Sr.; Brandon Puritt, DE, Sr.; Tre Jones, LB, Jr.; Tajik Bagley, CB, Sr.; D.J. Exilhomme, SS, Jr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Jake Dolegala, QB; Chris Tinkham, DL; Kenneth Keen, LB
OUTLOOK: McCarthy, the offensive coordinator, will serve the 2019 season as interim coach after coach Pete Rossomando left in late January for an assistant's position at Rutgers. The Blue Devils were NEC champs two years ago and could be in position to win another title when they visit Duquesne on Nov. 23. Winchester is a dual-threat QB who will keep opponents honest, but the Blue Devils want to run the ball behind All-NEC first-team linemen Brown and Mignone with RBs Dawson and Jean-Guillaume, who combined for 2,135 yards from scrimmage and 22 touchdowns. On defense, the secondary is loaded with All-NEC first-team selections Bagley and Exilhomme.
3. SACRED HEART
LOCATION: Fairfield, Connecticut
STADIUM: Campus Field
HEAD COACH: Mark Nofri (44-36, seven seasons)
2018 RECORDS: 7-4 overall, 5-1 NEC (Tie/1st)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 14 (6 offense/8 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Jordan Meachum, RB, Gr.; Julius Chestnut, RB, So.; Eli Terry, RB, Gr.; Josh Sokol, OL, Sr.; Chris Agyemang, DL, Sr.; Mike Wilen, LB, Sr.; Chris Outterbridge, LB, Jr.; Noah Provenzano, DB, Gr.; Jayden Jordan, DB, Jr.; Shawn Ramcheran, DB, Sr.; Kevin Sears, DB, Gr.; Noah Gettman, PK/P, So.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Kevin Duke, QB; Andrew O'Neill, WR; Aaron Donalson, DL
OUTLOOK: Although Duquesne advanced to the playoffs and won a game, Sacred Heart earned a share of a third NEC title in the Nofri era. QBs Jake Radic, Grant Lowary and Marquez McCray have battled to replace Duke, a two-year starter. The offense will lead the NEC in rushing again behind 1,400-yard back Jordan Meachum, NEC offensive rookie of the year Chestnut and Eli Terry, a key returnee if healthy. The team's tackle leader, Wilen, and All-NEC DE Agyemang (55 tackles, 15½ tackles for loss) form a rugged duo in the defensive front seven.
4. SAINT FRANCIS
LOCATION: Loretto, Pennsylvania
STADIUM: DeGol Field
HEAD COACH: Chris Villiarrial (40-59, nine seasons)
2018 RECORDS: 4-7 overall, 2-4 NEC (Tie/5th)
PROJECTED STARTERS RETURNING: 11 (5 offense/6 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Jason Brown, QB, R-So.; Syaire Madden, RB, R-So.; E.J. Jenkins, WR, R-So.; Terrell Johnson, TE, R-Jr.; Alec Shriner, OG, R-Sr.; Christian Eubanks, OT, R-Sr.; Jalen Brown, DT, So.; Aaron Appleton, ILB, Jr. (Dakota College transfer); Da'Jon Lee, OLB, Sr.; Nick Rinella, S/RS, Sr.; Cedric Asseh, DB, R-Sr. (Miami-Ohio transfer); Dorian Jackson, DB, So.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Kam Lewis, WR; Mike Ames, C; Hakeem Kinard, S
OUTLOOK: The highly successful Villiarrial era is in its 10th season, and the Red Flash want to return to a higher level, such as with their 2016 NEC championship season. They lost six games by eight or fewer points last season, so they may not be far off from their goals. They'll be led by their defense, which last season ranked seventh nationally in yards allowed per game (290.3) and 11th in scored in points allowed per game (20.2). OLB Lee is one of the NEC's top defenders, and DT Brown (NEC defensive rookie of the year) and S Rinella also are key returnees. To improve the offense, defensive coordinator Marco Pecora has switched over the line of scrimmage. His new unit was ravaged in the skills positions by graduation.
LOCATION: Staten Island, New York
STADIUM: Wagner College Stadium
HEAD COACH: Jason Houghtaling (15-29, four seasons)
2018 RECORDS: 4-7 overall, 3-3 NEC (4th)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 9 (3 offense/6 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Christian Alexander-Stevens, QB, Gr. (FIU transfer); Marquez Trigg, RB, Gr. (Eastern Kentucky grad transfer); Adam Giordano, TE, Sr.; Tevaughn Grant, OL, R-Sr.; Chris Gangarossa, OL, Sr.; Julian McCleod, DL, R-Sr.; Chris Williams, DL, Sr.; Cam Gill, OLB, Sr.; Titus Leo, OLB, So.; Santoni Graham, ILB, R-Sr.; Myron Morris, CB, Sr.; Myron Morris, CB, Sr.; Eric Silvester, PK/P, Jr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: T.J. Linta, QB; Ryan Fulse, RB; Justin Osuji, OLB
OUTLOOK: The Seahawks have the fewest returning starters (nine) among the teams that were in the conference last season. The big loss is Fulse, who ranked second in the FCS in rushing and first in all-purpose yards per game. Houghtaling brought in a likely new starter in Eastern Kentucky grad transfer Trigg and landed an even bigger fish in QB Alexander, the offensive MVP in FIU's 2018 Bahamas Bowl victory. The defense underachieved last season considering its high talent, including OLB Gill, the NEC defensive player of the year who had 24 tackles for loss and 13½ sacks, and OLB Graham, who posted a team-high 99 tackles. To prepare for the NEC, the Seahawks will play two FBS opponents, UConn and Florida Atlantic.
LOCATION: Smithfield, Rhode Island
STADIUM: Bulldog Stadium
HEAD COACH: Chris Merritt (first season)
2018 RECORDS: 6-5 overall, 2-4 NEC (Tie/5th)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 13 (7 offense/6 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Kory Curtis, QB, Jr. (Ohio State transfer); Alfred Dorbor, RB, R-Jr.; Dan Adeboboye, RB, So.; Isaac McCray, RB, Jr.; David Zorrilla, WR, So.; Vinny Nisivoccia, WR/KR, R-Sr.; Andrew Jones, C, R-Sr.; Mike Andrejco, OL, Jr.; Tomas Wright, DL, Sr.; Derrick Roy, DL, R-So.; Kodi Ojukwu, DL, R-Sr.; Fernando Casanova, DL, R-Jr.; Robert Brown, LB, Sr.; Jesse Nemerowicz, LB, Sr.; James LoChirco, LB, R-So.; Richard Ukele, LB, R-So.; David Onyemem, DB, Jr.; Logi Portugal, DB, Sr; Eulogio Portugal, DB, Sr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Price Wilson, QB; Jean Constant, WR/KR; Thomas Costigan, LB
OUTLOOK: Merritt arrived at Bryant after 18 years of guiding Miami's Christopher Columbus High. He sent over 100 players to the high school level, including current Bulldogs FB Kyle Mann and OL Robert Perez. The Bulldogs are basically starting over in the offensive backfield, but having an Ohio State transfer behind center, Curtis, to work with All-NEC preseason WR Nisivoccia (50 receptions, 691 yards, six touchdowns) is a solid start. DE Wright (17½ tackles for loss, 12½ sacks) is a wrecking crew, but the Bulldogs have to allow fewer than 40.5 points per game, like last season.
7. LONG ISLAND U.
HEAD COACH: Bryan Collins (160-72, 21 seasons)
2018 RECORDS: 10-1 Division II
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 7 (5 offense/2 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Clay Beathard, QB, R-Jr. (Iowa Western CC transfer); Jonathan DeBique, RB, R-So.; Tim Marinan, RB, Sr.; Derick Eugene, WR, R-Jr.; Jake Bofshever, WR, R-Sr.; Alex Daubon, WR, Jr. (College of DuPage transfer); Ronin Guerra, OL, So.; Abel Joseph, DL, R-Sr.; Anthony Lavio, DL, R-Jr.; Joe Amalfitano, DL, R-Jr.; Dareus Smith, DL, R-Jr.; Ricco Aaron, Jr., LB, Sr.; Abdoulaye Konate, LB, Jr.; Spanky Dixon, DB, Fr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Chris Coles, OL; Jake Carlock, DB; Nazir Streater, DB
OUTLOOK: LIU had great success in Division II, winning 45 games in the last five seasons, but heavy graduation losses have rendered the newly named Sharks vulnerable in their FCS transition. The losses include QB Chris Laviano, leading rusher Malik Pierre, leading receiver Michael Richardson and leading tackler Kevin Petit-Frere. New QB Beathard is the younger brother of NFL signal caller C.J. Beathard. Marinan, back from a lower body injury last year, and DeBique will play tag-team with carries. Streater's transfer hurts the defense. LIU's first game in the FCS? It's quite daunting: Sept. 7 at No. 3 South Dakota State.
8. ROBERT MORRIS
LOCATION: Moon Township, Pennsylvania
STADIUM: Joe Walton Stadium
HEAD COACH: Bernard Clark (2-9, one season)
2018 RECORDS: 2-9 overall, 0-6 NEC (7th)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 17 (9 offense/8 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: George Martin, QB, So., R-Fr.; Terence Stephens, RB, Sr.; Alijah Jackson, RB, R-So.; DeLano Madison, WR, Sr.; Matthew Gonzalez, TE, Sr.; Matthew Fennell, OT, Sr.; Trevor Hicks, OT, Jr.; Eric McAllister, C, R-Jr.; Conner Mundy, OG, Sr.; Alex Minford, OG, Jr.; Tyler Lamica, LB, Sr.; Tavin Allison, S, R-Jr.; Nick Bisceglia, PK, Jr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Jimmy Walker, QB; Amir Fenwick, DT; Adam Wollet, LB
OUTLOOK: Close losses to Bryant and Eastern Kentucky last season suggested the progress under Clark, who has a more experienced team for his second campaign. Still, the Colonials have losing streaks they want to end: 18 on the road, 17 against Division I opponents and 14 in the NEC. QB Martin showed promise as a freshman and will work with an experienced offensive line, solid RBs Jackson and Stephens and one of the top pass-catching tight ends in the FCS, Gonzalez. However, the defense has been beaten up in recent seasons, with opponents averaging 43.5 points per game a year ago.
HEAD COACH: Dan Curran (29-35, seven seasons)
2018 RECORDS: 5-5 Division II
PROJECTED STARTERS RETURNING: 17 (8 offense/9 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Christian Carter, QB, So.; Jamari Ventner, RB, R-So.; Johnny Rosario, WR, So.; Marquis Spence, WR, R-Sr.; Tyler Roberts, TE/H-Back, So.; Erick Browne, OL, R-Sr.; Sam Cooper, OL, R-Jr.; Clay Legault, OL, R-Jr.; Michael Mercuri, MLB, R-Jr.; Jake Ragusa, SLB, R-Jr.; Rodney Samson, LB, So. (injured last season); Enrique McFarlane, LB/S, R-Sr.; Jovan Grant, SS, R-Jr.; Caleb Holden, CB, Jr.; Anthony Witherstone, DB, R-So.; Clay Legault, OL, R-Jr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Cody Demers, WR; Hunter Sallila, OL; Jesse Jones, DL
OUTLOOK: The Warriors' FCS transition appears difficult, but they gained momentum by winning four of their final five games in Division II last year, with the loss by only one point. There's a good mix of classes in their experienced lineup. QB Carter (16 touchdowns versus three interceptions) started seven games as a true freshman and will only get better. Eight of the top 11 tacklers are back, led by MLB Mercuri (81 tackles, 10½ tackles for loss), and the secondary should be healthier. Merrimack will play four of its eight NEC brethren this season.