|Automatic playoff bid inspires NEC|
As fall approaches, a certain buzz begins to generate within the college football community. Camps are beginning, polls are being released and predictions are being made.
This year, in the Northeast Conference specifically, the preseason buzz is threatening to become a rumble.
What is it, aside from the usual preseason excitement, that has the NEC football community rumbling?
Well, 2010 marks the first time in NEC history that the conference champion will be awarded an automatic bid to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
The rumble is justified.
This season, the FCS playoffs will expand from 16 to 20 teams. Two new conferences will receive automatic bids - the Big South and the Northeast - and the other two spots will be filled by at-large bids.
The expansion guarantees at least one team in the NEC a right to play for the FCS championship. The incentive is enough to generate a Richter-sized rumble. But in a wide-open conference, establishing a definitive FCS playoff contender may prove difficult.
Two teams which appear to have a slight edge in 2010 are defending NEC champion Central Connecticut State, and up-and-comer Robert Morris.
|Wagner at St. Francis (Pa.), Oct. 16 - Last year, Wagner prevailed 56-48 inovertime. The contest was the highest-scoring matchup in Northeast Conferencehistory. Look for similar fireworks in 2010.|
Central Connecticut State at Albany, Oct. 23 - When last season's top two NECfinishers met in 2009, both teams were undefeated in conference play. Albany held a 23-14 halftime lead, but allowed 17 unanswered second-half points in a losing effort. Albany will look to avenge that loss on their home turf in 2010.
Central Connecticut State at Robert Morris, Nov. 6 - Robert Morris won its final five games last season, including triumphs over Wagner and Albany. If Robert Morris carries momentum into 2010, this late-season matchup against 2009 NEC champ Central Connecticut State should prove to be a significant game for both teams.
Had the NEC possessed an automatic playoff bid in 2009, the rights would have gone to Central Connecticut State. The Blue Devils finished the campaign with a 9-3 overall record (7-1 in conference).
Head coach Jeff McInerney, a 2009 Eddie Robinson Award finalist, which is given to the top head coach in the FCS, is excited at the prospect of the bid.
"It's an exciting time because now you are playing for something," he said."At one point we were the only team in our school that did not have the opportunity to play for a national championship. It is an exciting, exciting time and there's really no pressure, it's just fun."
While the coach may not feel any pressure, his contenders in the NEC will look to apply it with force this season.
In 2009, CCS thrived on the pressure. Five of the team's victories came in games in which they trailed at halftime. Six of their victories were decided by seven points or less, with three of those victories being decided by a single point.
While close victories indicate strong leadership, they also instill hope in the opponent. This season, with CCS being marked as the team to beat, other programs will remember last year, and know they had a legitimate chance to knock off the best.
Central Connecticut State's key challenge will be replacing 2009 NEC Offensive Player of the Year James Mallory. He was the team's top rusher each of the last two seasons, gaining 1,352 yards and scoring 16 touchdowns in 2009.
"He was a special young man," McInerney said. "You hope the younger kids learned and watched his energy and his work ethic and you hope for the best."
The Blue Devils appear to have a capable backup in Brian Fowler, who averaged 6.9 yards per carry last season.
One of Central Connecticut State's easier victories last year came against Robert Morris. It handed Robert Morris its sixth consecutive loss of the season. For the Colonials, the situation was dire. The team sat at 0-6 and had already benched its two senior quarterbacks. With their next game coming against St. Francis (Pa.), the coaching staff was desperate for answers.
"We had a bye week before the St. Francis game and in our coaches meeting we really tried to figure out what happened in the first six ball games," said assistant coach John Banaszak.
Following the bye, although the coach isn't sure of the exact reason, the team began a drastic turnaround. "We really haven't figured out what the secret was that turned the season around, we just started playing better football.
"We didn't turn the ball over, our defense allowed 19 less points a game and our offense scored five more points per game, and that (allowed) us to win our last five ball games in the NEC."
As Banaszak mentioned, the Colonial tallied five consecutive wins, an impressive achievement for any program. And the coach Banaszak was right to point out the defensive effort. Over those last five contests, the defense allowed just seven points per game.
This year, the Colonials return their top two tacklers, linebackers Alex DiMichele and Elias Navarro. Nose tackle Chris Roberts returns, giving the Colonials strength up the middle.
Another vital element during the turnaround was the play of freshman quarterback Jeff Sinclair. He took over the starting role in the team's fifth game and finished the year 5-2 as a starter, while throwing for 828 yards and nine touchdowns and rushing for 128 yards and three touchdowns.
Sinclair will again be joined in the backfield by standout running back Myles Russ, who will look to break the school's all-time rushing record.
While Sinclair contributed to the team's rise last season, Banaszak knows there may be growing pains in his second season. He points out that Sinclair is "not in the mold of quarterbacks that coach (Joe) Walton is used to having. He is a renegade kid that can run the ball and do some things that typically coach Walton cringes on, but he's gonna be just fine."
While both Robert Morris and Central Connecticut have their question marks, they appear poised to make a run at an automatic bid. Still, this is a balanced conference and anything can happen.
As Monmouth head coach Kevin Callahan said, "What the automatic bid does is it takes what's already a very even and competitive conference and makes it even more so, because each and every team in the conference understands that at the end of the year the champion is going to represent the NEC in the FCS playoffs. It's an opportunity for the league champion to make history."
NORTHEASTERN CONFERENCE PRESEASON POLL (Coaches)
1. Central Connecticut State (4 first-place votes);
2. Robert Morris (3 first- place votes);
3. Albany (1 first-place vote);
4. Wagner (1 first-place vote);
8. Sacred Heart;
9. Saint Francis (Pa.)
PRESEASON NEC ALL-CONFERENCE TEAM
Nick Doscher, Wagner;
Myles Russ, Robert Morris;
Dominique Williams, Wagner;
Josue Paul, Central Connecticut State;
Dave Williams, Duquesne;
Matt Tracey, Bryant;
Mike Allison, Central Connecticut State;
Joe Feriozzi, Wagner;
Cleveland Green, Wagner;
Andy Sparano, Albany;
Shawn Wright, Monmouth
Trevor Anderson, Albany;
Thaimu Bangura, Duquesne;
Justin Embler, Sacred Heart;
Dave Ogden, Monmouth;
Jose Gumbs, Monmouth;
Alex DiMichele, Robert Morris;
Scott Lewis, Saint Francis (Pa.);
Rolf Bathold, Robert Morris;
Kendall Haley, Monmouth;
Dominique Rose, Central Connecticut;
Alondre Rush, Central Connecticut
Garrett Clawson, Robert Morris;
Kyle Muir, Wagner;
Frantz Placide, Wagner
By Andrew Gaddess, FCS Assistant