Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - A missed field goal here, a turnover there, there isn't a lot of difference between the top teams in the Northeast Conference.

One great example was Bryant last year. The Bulldogs perhaps arrived a year early to the NEC title race, but there they sat at 4-0 entering the final two weeks of the regular season. And then they lost to eventual co-champions Sacred Heart and Wagner by a combined 10 points to finish in third place. So close.

And a team not even in the top three - Duquesne - keeps coming close to gaining the NEC's automatic bid to the FCS playoffs, but last year the Dukes fell to 2-4 in conference play. And yet it was a deceptive mark considering the closeness of some of their losses.

So there's a lot of optimism across the conference in what continues to be a close-knit group.

Here's a look across the NEC with spring practices getting underway across the nation:

STORY LINES

Sacred Heart will be hard-pressed to stay atop the standings after the two- time defending co-champion lost 26 seniors. But coach Mark Nofri welcomes back junior quarterback RJ Noel, already a two-time All-NEC first-teamer.

Fellow defending co-champion Wagner has a different feel to it with Walt Hameline stepping down after 34 seasons. Jason Houghtaling, in his third stint with Seahawks, likely won't make significant changes after being elevated from offensive coordinator.

Perhaps Bryant arrived a year early with an 8-3 campaign. Coach Marty Fine returns 10 starters on offense and seven on defense. The Bulldogs are motivated after losing their final two games to Sacred Heart and Wagner when the FCS playoffs were within reach.

Central Connecticut State came away disappointed in coach Pete Rossomando's first season even after defeating two CAA Football programs because the Blue Devils beat only one other team, Saint Francis. They lost all-purpose standout Rob Hollomon Jr., and quarterback Rick SanGiacomo, a two-year starter, is not planning to use his final season of eligibility, so Rossomando will continue to build with a young nucleus.

Six of the seven Duquesne players to earn All-NEC honors last season were underclassmen. Among the returnees is sophomore linebacker Nathan Stone, who racked up 100 tackles in winning the conference's defensive rookie of the year award.

The first season after coach Joe Walton's departure didn't go so well for Robert Morris as it slipped to 1-10, beating only CCSU and losing nine times by at least 19 points. The starting lineup kept changing for second-year coach John Banaszak, but he has plenty of returning players. One of the building blocks is Rameses Owens, who was having a big freshman campaign until he suffered a late-season injury.

Saint Francis has improved considerably under coach Chris Villarial, posting three straight five-win seasons. An early season injury to Max Ward opened the door for quarterback Zack Drayer to become an offensive leader.

THEY'RE BACK

Duquesne played last season without linebackers Christian Kuntz and Aaron Reed, who tied for the team lead in tackles in 2013. They return from injuries.

Robert Morris cornerback Marcelis Branch, the 2012 NEC defensive rookie of the year, returns to the program after sitting out last season.

After leading Saint Francis with six interceptions in 2013, safety Lorenzo Jerome came back to pace the team in tackles as a sophomore.

Wagner will be strong in the interior of the defensive line with All-NEC nose tackle Al Page and tackle Fidel Okoye, who was lost to injury in the fourth game last season.

The Bryant offensive line is seeking better play, but it's hard for anybody to stop the 1-2 rushing combo of Paul Canevari (931 yards) and Ricardo McCray (814 yards, 10 touchdowns).

On such a young Central Connecticut State team, left tackle Tyler Hurd already is a 2 1/2-year starter.

With inside linebacker Kellan Sperduto returning to Sacred Heart's lineup, the Pioneers are stocked at the position considering James Rentz will challenge for conference defensive player of the year honors.

POSITION BATTLES

To replace SanGiacomo at quarterback, Central Connecticut State could turn to sophomore Taz Pauldo, although incoming freshman Jake Dolegala is on campus ready to compete for the job.

Bryant has to figure out its safety spots, with Brandon Owens, Patrick Champagnie and Karl Sery competing at strong safety and Chuckie Keenan and Brian Taylor doing the same at free safety.

Duquesne has a top passing combination in Dillon Buechel-to-Chris King, but the Dukes want to improve on a rushing attack that averaged only 119.2 yards per game. Sophomore Rafig Douglas is the team's top returning rusher, but running back is an open competition.

All four Robert Morris quarterbacks who saw action last season are returning - Luke Brumbaugh, Derik Abbott, Marcus Prather and Joe Carroll - but they led an attack that averaged only 9.9 points per game.

Sacred Heart's running game is being reworked after the loss of backs Keshaudas Spencer and Sean Bell and three of the five starters on the offensive line.

Wagner may wind up using running backs by committee, including Otis Wright, Matthias McKinnon, Brandon Peoples and redshirt freshman Denzell Knight.

FIVE BREAKOUT PERFORMERS

Having lost NEC defensive player of the year Jeff Covitz and fellow defensive end Maduka Nwanekezi, Bryant hopes sophomore Dillon Guthro becomes a consistently strong pass rusher.

On a team with excellent receivers, Duquesne's Chavas Rawlins, a former West Virginia transfer who has played some Wildcat quarterback, will take on a bigger role.

Wagner was starting to see a lot out of wide receiver Anthony Carrington before he was sidelined with a knee injury. He figures to be a big-play threat.

As Robert Morris seeks offensive spark, its wide receivers corps could find a spark from redshirt freshman Kyle Buss.

He might have been the NEC offensive rookie of the year, but it was probably hard to appreciate running back Marcus Bagley because Khairi Dickson led the FCS in rushing yards per game. The Red Flash had the top-scoring offense in the NEC and Bagley will make for a true dual-threat with an increased workload.

NUMBERS NEVER LIE

The NEC returns four players who scored at least a dozen touchdowns: Sacred Heart wide receiver Tyler Dube (17), Duquesne's King (14), Bryant's McCray (14) and Saint Francis' Dickson (12).

Bryant opponents completed fewer than 50 percent of their pass attempts and the Pioneers allowed only nine touchdown passes while collecting 14 interceptions.

Saint Francis place-kicker Lance Geesey was nearly automatic on field goal attempts, going 18-for-22, including a long of 52 yards.

Robert Morris ranked last in the FCS with a minus-20 turnover margin. Yeah, yikes.

In 12 games, Sacred Heart totaled 107 penalties for 1,028 yards - much too sloppy for the NEC playoff representative.

SPRING PRACTICE DATES

With 2014 records in parentheses

Bryant (8-3, 4-2): March 21-April 18

Central Connecticut State (3-9, 1-5): March 25-April 18

Duquesne (6-6, 2-4): March 9-April 11

Robert Morris (1-10, 1-5): March 16-April 18

Sacred Heart (9-3, 5-1): March 11-April 18

Saint Francis (5-6, 3-3): March 29-April 25

Wagner (7-4, 5-1): March 26-April 25