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In the FCS Huddle: NEC doesn't expect competitive drop-off

Sometimes everyone needs a change of scenery, a chance to try something different and gain new experiences.

For the Northeast Conference football schools, the FCS postseason as a whole will be a recently renovated adventure for possibly more than one team. But the NEC also enters this upcoming season without two programs from 2012.

Albany and Monmouth both departed the conference after the culmination of last season - Monmouth to become an FCS independent and Albany to join the CAA - changing the landscape of the NEC.

Can you blame the two programs for wanting to try something different? No. But it's possible they left the league at an inopportune time.

The FCS playoffs will expand to 24 teams following the 2013 season, an increase of four tournament slots from the previous three years. For a team like Albany, which was on the tournament bubble last season while Wagner won the NEC's automatic bid, those expanded four slots may have meant the difference between playing in the postseason and watching it from home.

Now Albany play in a CAA conference loaded with Top 25 teams - some very, very stiff competition, indeed. Monmouth will join the Big South next year.

Despite the makeup of the league shaking up over the winter months, NEC coaches feel the league is just as strong as ever with an incredible amount of talented athletes.

"There's no doubt across the board that every team is getting better and better each year, playing quality out-of-conference opponents," Duquesne coach Jerry Schmitt said Monday. "You look across the board, and it's a battle every week. Even more so when you look at all the talented athletes that made the preseason team.

"Every school is going to be prepared. There's no doubt it's a very strong conference. We're extremely pleased to get into a conference that is this strong and represented well over the past couple of years in the playoffs."

Schmitt isn't lying. For a conference that has only received an automatic bid since the 2010 season, the NEC has been a pain for larger programs to deal with in the postseason.

Back in 2010, then-NEC champion Robert Morris held a 7-6 lead over North Dakota State at halftime before the wheels came off the Coloniels' wagon in the fourth quarter. Albany narrowly lost a 31-28 decision to then-Big South contender Stony Brook. And Wagner became the first NEC team to win a playoff game with a 31-20 win over Colgate last year before bowing out to a tough Eastern Washington team in the second round.

Wagner coach Walt Hameline's Seahawks were picked as the preseason favorite to win the NEC, with Duquesne not far behind. To repeat as champions, Hameline said his team will try to keep things as similar as possible to their 2012 season and look to drill even further into the postseason.

"I don't think you change anything, from my standpoint," Hameline said. "We're still doing the same fundamental things and talking to our kids. This is a totally new deal. It's a new season, and the only thing we have control over right now is each practice and where we're going one game at a time. That's just keeping it as simple as I can keep it. That's all fine what you've done in the past, but I think as coaches we all know that it's not what you did yesterday, it's what you're doing right now."

The talent in the NEC is reflected by several players being named to the preseason Walter Payton and Buck Buchanan Award watch lists. Duquesne linebacker Dorian Bell (on the Buchanan watch list) transferred from Ohio State following the 2010 tattoo parlor scandal, and his maturity and leadership skills have grown leaps and bounds since then, Schmitt said. Bell recorded 12 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks in only eight games last season, and looks to improve on those numbers.

Bryant wide receiver Jordan Harris (Payton watch list) is a receiver you love to have on your team and hate to line up against. The bulky 6-foot-2, 215- pound receiver hauled in 15 touchdown catches last year, and is just 762 receiving yards away from setting the NEC all-time receiving yardage mark (currently at 3,460).

To put an eye-raising figure out there: Harris averaged 20.4 yards per catch in 2012, which is below his career average of 21 yards per reception.

Two fewer teams in the league, though, means additional non-conference matchups. St. Francis (Pa.) opens the season with powerhouse Georgia Southern, while Wagner has a Sept. 14 matchup with FBS' Syracuse, and has to follow with Delaware.

A handful of NEC teams will see the familiar faces of Albany coach Bob Ford and Monmouth coach Kevin Callahan this season in non-conference games. You can bet it will feel as though nothing has changed.

"We're going to miss those two teams from a standpoint that they brought a lot of good things to our conference and competitive games with everybody right across the board," Hameline said. "We're going to miss them, and want to wish them the best of luck."

Meanwhile, the rest of the NEC and their rivalries forge on.

NORTHEAST CONFERENCE FOOTBALL PRESEASON POLL

Voted on by Coaches

1. Wagner (4 first-place votes)

2. Duquesne (3)

3. Bryant

4. Robert Morris

5. St. Francis (Pa.)

6. Central Connecticut State

7. Sacred Heart

PRESEASON ALL-NEC TEAM

Offense

QB - Mike Westerhaus, Bryant, Sr.

RB - Rob Hollomon, Central Connecticut State, Jr.

RB - Dominique Williams, Wagner, Sr.

WR - Jordan Harris, Bryant, Sr.

WR - Gianni Carter, Duquesne, Sr.

TE - Bryant Watts, Wagner, R-Jr.

OL - Nick Redden, Duquesne, Sr.

OL - Thurston Kino, St. Francis, R-Jr.

OL - Paul Link, Sacred Heart, R-Sr.

OL - David Fredrickson, Wagner, R-Jr.

OL - A.J. Dalton, Robert Morris, Sr.

First-Team Defense

DL - Jeff Covitz, Bryant, Jr.

DL - Farren Mason, Robert Morris, R-Sr.

DL - Joe Laukaitis, St. Francis, Sr.

DL - Troy Moore, Sacred Heart, Jr.

LB - Dorian Bell, Duquesne, Sr.

LB - Mike Cook, Robert Morris, R-Sr.

LB - Bishop Neal, St. Francis, Jr.

DB - Jeremy Woodson, Bryant, Sr.

DB - Jarrett Dieudonne, Wagner, R-Jr.

DB - Jakob DeMedal, St. Francis, Sr.

DB - Marcelis Branch, Robert Morris, So.

Special Teams

PK - David Lopez, Wagner, Sr.

P - Tony LaMancusa, Robert Morris, Jr.

Return - Rob Hollomon, Central Connecticut State, Jr.