It should be no surprise to anyone that Lehigh heads into the 2012 season as the Patriot League's preseason favorite. After all, the Mountain Hawks haven't lost a conference game since Nov. 7, 2009.
Not to mention, they posted a memorable 2011 campaign which included a road playoff win versus CAA Football champion Towson, and suffered only two losses, the first in Week 2 at home to New Hampshire, and the second in the FCS quarterfinals versus eventual national champion North Dakota State.
If this were any normal Patriot League media day, the spotlight and topic of attention Wednesday would have been on Lehigh, including how teams plan to derail the reigning two-time league champion and or what else Mountain Hawks stud senior wide receiver Ryan Spadola can do to prove he is one of the FCS��� premier pass catchers.
However, this offseason, the biggest story involved one of the league���s most important decisions that will great impact the future of the conference.
In early February, league presidents met to endorse change in football athletic aid policies. Essentially this meant for the first time, athletic merit aid (traditional scholarships) for the sport of football would be allowed in the Patriot League, beginning with the class of 2013.
"I think at some point down the road now that we've adopted a scholarship model we may see some expansion with the football membership," Patriot League president Carolyn Schlie Femovich said. "Our membership has been very stable since Georgetown entered the league in 2001. We've been at seven members, which is a little bit small in some way of thinking because of the amount of league games."
While Schlie Femovich didn't specify if the league had sent invitations or spoken with members of other leagues, she believes in the near future the conference will expand. That is, only if new members can fit a certain criteria for Patriot League standards.
"I think it's a moving target because first and foremost we want to make sure that anybody that finds the Patriot League attractive, and wants to join us fully, embraces all of our philosophies and principles academically and athletically," Schlie Femovich said. "We believe in being competitive on the playing field with the best, but we will do it with student-athletes who look like the rest of the student body, who are going to be successful academically. It's a little bit different in terms of how we approach things."
Of the many coaches who felt strongly about possible conference expansion, Lehigh's Andy Coen said it would benefit the conference significantly on all aspects.
"In the past, you gave families financial aid paperwork and we were strictly the middle man," Coen said. "A recruit might have been a top player, but the only aid you were allowed to give him was whatever our financial office deemed they qualified for. There were so many classes of people we could give aid to, but not enough aid so they could feel comfortable to send their kid to school, So it will help recruiting tremendously."
Because the league only plays six conference contests per season, scheduling five out-of conference opponents can cause problems. Programs can schedule better quality teams of their preference, but it also risks injuries and playoff implications, on top of having to play conference games.
"It's real important for us down the road to expand," Coen said. "I think we have too many non-conference games to schedule and that's a challenge. Every game's important, but because of the success we've had, teams won't schedule us now. There are a lot of teams across the country who are in the same boat for non-conference games."
Last season's surprise team, Georgetown, had one of its most successful seasons, finishing 8-3 overall and second in conference play.
Head coach Kevin Kelly also believes it's in the league's best interest to expand in years to come, especially if the academic integrity can remain.
"That's what college football is all about," Kelly said. "It should be about the student-athlete, and that's the definition of our league. We have excellent students, and hard-working student-athletes. We also play a great brand of football. That's the way it should be."
Despite gaining the second-most first-place votes in the preseason poll, Georgetown was selected fourth. Hoyas linebacker Robert McCabe was named the Patriot preseason defensive player of the year.
PATRIOT LEAGUE FOOTBALL PRESEASON POLL
(Heach Coaches and Sports Information Directors)
1. Lehigh (11 first-place votes), 60 points
2. Holy Cross (1), 46
3. Colgate, 36
4. Georgetown (2), 33
5. Lafayette, 32
6. Bucknell, 15
Fordham ineligible for league championship
PRESEASON PATRIOT AWARDS
Offensive Player of the Year - Ryan Spadola, WR, Lehigh
Defensive Player of the Year - Robert McCabe, LB, Georgetown
QB - Gavin McCarney, Colgate, Jr.
RB - Zach Barket, Lehigh, Sr.
RB - Tyler Smith, Bucknell, Sr.
FB/HB - Travis Friend, Bucknell, Jr.
WR - Gerald Mistretta, Holy Cross, Sr.
WR - Mark Ross, Lafayette, Jr.
WR - Ryan Spadola, Lehigh, Sr.
TE - Jamel Haggins, Lehigh, Sr.
OL - Ryan Risch, Colgate, Sr.
OL - Mike Roland, Georgetown, So.
OL - Andrew Scarmado, Colgate, Jr.
OL - Mike Vuono, Lehigh, Sr.
OL - Sean Whited, Holy Cross, Sr.
DL - Sajjad Changani, Lehigh, Sr.
DL - Rick Lyster, Lafayette, Sr.
DL - Jack Maliska, Holy Cross, Sr.
DL - Nick Womack, Fordham, Sr.
LB - Mike Martin, Fordham, Sr.
LB - Robert McCabe, Georgetown, Sr.
LB - Beau Traber, Bucknell, Sr.
LB - Michael Tucker, Holy Cross, Jr.
DB - Bryan Andrews, Lehigh, Sr.
DB - Jeremy Moore, Georgetown, Sr.
DB - Tom Mannix, Holy Cross, Sr.
DB - Billy O'Brien, Lehigh, Sr.
PK - John Macomber, Holy Cross, Jr.
P - Patrick Murray, Fordham, Sr.
RS - Jeremy Moore, Georgetown, Sr.