Here's the key thing to know when it comes to Northeast Conference football: Don't take any game lightly. Saint Francis learned this lesson the hard way against upstart Wagner in the 2016 regular season finale, and Duquesne found out against Bryant in 2015. The Red Flash seemed to be cruising to the FCS Playoffs last year and Wagner knocked them off. They still made the FCS Playoffs, but it showed what can happen in the NEC.
With all being said, Duquesne seems to be the favorite to capture at least a part of the NEC title for the fifth time in seven years. The Dukes open with a daunting trip to Brookings, S.D. to take on one of the FCS' top programs in South Dakota State, but the rest of the schedule certainly looks manageable.
Saint Francis wide receiver Kamron Lewis is one of the nation's top go-to threats (SFA Athletics)
Names to Know
THE NFL PROSPECT: WR Kamron Lewis, Saint Francis
DB Lorenzo Jerome's exact words to HERO Sports before heading to the NFL: "Watch out for Kamron."
THE VETERAN COACH: Jerry Schmitt – Duquesne
He's heading into his 13th season, and was even an assistant with the Dukes in the 1980s.
TOP PASSER: Jacob Dolegala, Central Connecticut
Nearly hit the 3,000-yard mark last year.
TOP RUSHER: A.J. Hines, Duquesne
Accounted for nearly 1,500 yards with 14 TDs.
TOP RECEIVER: Kamron Lewis, Saint Francis
Caught 75 passes, 1,478 yards, 11 TDs.
TOP TACKLER: Randall Laguerre, Central Connecticut
Top 15 ranked tackler nationally, per game.
TOP SACK MAN: Gee Stanley, Robert Morris
Busted loose as a freshman with 8.5 sacks.
TOP INT ARTIST: Jesse Flaherty, Wagner
Snagged four of them in 2016.
BOUNCE BACK ARTIST: Jevon Elmore, Central Connecticut
After missing 2016, he's ready to get back to 2015 form.
KEEP AN EYE ON: John Williams, Wagner
This 6-foot-6 pass catching target averaged 21.2 yards per reception.
Bryant – The Bulldogs have a great alumni base and the endowment proves it. They led the league in attendance last year.
DID YOU KNOW?
Duquesne won the Orange Bowl in 1936, knocking off Mississippi State of the SEC by one point. Coach "Clipper" Smith was the mentor during those years. But that wasn't the Dukes' best season ever. In much the same fashion as the Harvard's and Yale teams of the leather helmet era, the Dukes finished No. 8 overall in the AP poll in 1941, going 8-0-0 and once again beating Mississippi State in the season finale, this time in the regular season. During this era, wins over programs like nearby rival Pitt, Texas Tech and N.C. State were the norm, not the exception.
If you think the NEC is a scholarship-less conference, think again. A school can scholarship up to 45 players, up from 30 in 2006. But a school can come up with need-based equivalencies and kick that number up another 10 to 15 scholarships, like Wagner has done (59). This is the reason the product on the field keeps improving dramatically (as seen when Saint Francis went toe-to-toe with Montana last year).
Wagner. The Seahawks kept Saint Francis from an unblemished league record last year, and have some serious talent coming back. Don't be surprised if they're in contention in November. Keep an eye on Sacred Heart and its run defense, too.[divider]
Duquesne's the odds-on favorite with 13 starters back and a nearly intact defense that finished Top 10 nationally in total yardage, though Saint Francis and its impressive secondary may have something to say about that. Dukes' linebackers Nathan Stone and Carter Henderson are brawlers, and stud RB A.J. Hines and a line led by Ben Huss looks stout. If one of the new talented quarterbacks can keep this ship sailing in the right direction, this could be your FCS playoff team come November, maybe with double digit wins. But the NEC is full of landmines – like in 2015 when Bryant knocked Duquesne around.
Duquesne offensive lineman Ben Huss will anchor a very strong line for the Dukes (DU Athletics)
FCS PREVIEWS CONFERENCE BY CONFERENCE
Aug. 15 – The Northeast Conference and The Patriot League
Aug. 16 – Big South and Southern Conference
Aug. 17 – Southland and Ohio Valley
Aug. 18 – Ivy League and Pioneer League
Aug. 21 – CAA
Aug. 22 – SWAC and MEAC
Aug. 23 – Missouri Valley and Big Sky