Branching out from North Dakota State, the unquestioned trunk of the FCS tree, it takes three lopsided contests to work back to the Patriot League's thickest limb.

The Bison beat Jacksonville State by 27 for the FCS national tile. A round before, the Gamecocks routed Sam Houston State by 52. And the Bearkats advanced to that excruciating exit with a 27-point victory in a quarterfinal against Colgate - the Patriot's last gasp before witnessing those further humbling results.

While the conference's lineage tracing back from the title game doesn't provide ample evidence of improvement - and certainly hints at how far there is to go - there's plenty pointing toward the Patriot sprouting branches capable of supporting weight.

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The biggest factor is the league's four-year implementation of a scholarship system. Before 2013, only one school awarded scholarships: Fordham. Unsurprisingly, the Rams secured three of the league's five playoff berths over the last three seasons.

With the exception of Georgetown, the Patriot's other members agreed to join Fordham and adopt a system in which 15 scholarships would be added each year over four seasons until reaching 60. This past year was the first in which upperclassmen at Bucknell, Colgate, Holy Cross, Lafayette and Lehigh were athletic scholarship players. Next season will be the first in which seniors at those schools are on scholarship.

"You look at Fordham, they became a national team two years ago, which is about the time they got to the full complement of scholarship kids," Colgate coach Dan Hunt said. "You're starting to see it in the whole conference."

While obstacles remain - recruiting limitations imposed by high academic standards; three fewer scholarships than other FCS schools; the league not allowing red-shirt seasons - the transition has undeniably made for a more even playing field.

Hunt points to a team Colgate faced twice this season as evidence. Matchups with New Hampshire and the rest of the Colonial Athletic Association once provided Patriot teams with a humbling 60 minutes. In 2013, for example, Colgate lost 53-23 at New Hampshire.

"For years, especially in our league, the CAA teams have been physically better than us," said Hunt, whose team fell 26-8 to the Wildcats as part of a 0-3 start before finishing on a 9-2 run. "We've played a lot of teams from that conference in the 20 years I've been here, and a lot of times you stand on the field and say, 'Wow, these teams are just physically better.'

"And when we played New Hampshire, our kids looked like they belonged out there. We didn't play well and we lost, but we were able to pinpoint what we did wrong. It wasn't that we couldn't tackle them or couldn't block them."

And the next step - a victory - came in the playoffs. The Raiders and Wildcats met again in the first round and Colgate won 27-20 on the road. It didn't end there, either, with the Raiders winning 44-38 at James Madison the next week to match Lehigh in 2011 for the league's deepest run since Colgate's 40-0 loss to Delaware in the 2003 title game.

Fordham joined conference champion Colgate in the playoffs, marking the second time in three years the league got an at-large bid after going without one from 2005-12.

Both teams finished in the STATS FCS Top 25 - Colgate 17th and Fordham 19th, which was the first time two Patriot teams closed in the top 20 since 2009.

And there might be reason to believe another step forward in 2016 is on the way. Call it addition by lack of subtraction.

The five Patriot teams nearing the end of the scholarship transition were already relying heavily on three scholarship classes. There now seem to be an inordinate number of starters returning on those five rosters, including Fordham sophomore running back Chase Edmonds, the league's offensive player of the year.

Fifteen of the league's 24 first-team selections are returning next season, and two of the others were scholarship seniors for Fordham.

"I think every team in our league this year - with the exception of Fordham and Georgetown - but the rest of us, I thought it was unique that here's your senior class this year and a lot of those kids weren't playing a lot because they were the last non-scholarship class," Hunt said. "As you look around, a lot of teams return a lot of starters. It makes sense because of the scholarship kids."

That's not to say it's enough to put the league front-runners into the national title discussion. The three playoff victories and 106 points between Colgate and North Dakota State are realities Hunt accepts.

"We were on the field with Sam Houston and there was definitely a difference in the skill level almost across the board, and that's something that we have to work to close," he said. "... It's going to be a process. I think hopefully we've shown that we're getting there. The gap is definitely closer.

"With the academic portion of things, it's going to be tough, but I think that the league needs to continue to have success at a national level, particularly in the playoffs because that's when people take notice."

Colgate just might have that.

Linebacker Kyle Diener, defensive end Pat Afriyie and offensive lineman Jordi Dalmau - three of its five first-team selections - are returning. Quarterback Jake Melville, running back James Holland, wide receiver John Maddaluna, and defensive linemen Alex Campbell and Brett Field - five of its seven second-teamers - are, too.

And if the players already in place are able to close the gap, recruits might take notice and see the ultimate prize as a potential reality at a Patriot school.

"If we (compete) more consistently, it'll help you recruit as kids realize, 'OK, I can come to a Patriot League school and get the education that's going to take me where I want to go for the rest of my life and I can still legitimately compete for a national championship.' As word gets out, as our league gets more and more exposure at a national level, hopefully we can continue to recruit great kids and take that next step."

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TOPS IN THE LEAGUE=

Edmonds definitely earned his way to Patriot League Offensive Player of the Year, running for 1,643 of his 2,026 all-purpose yards with 20 touchdowns. He set a Patriot record with 347 rushing yards against Lehigh on Oct. 24. The defensive award went to Bucknell senior defensive back Clayton Ewell, who helped the Bison lead the league with 18.7 points and 338.7 yards allowed per game. Ewell had 66 tackles, including 11 for loss, three sacks and six pass breakups. Lehigh running back Dom Bragalone was the top freshman with 1,008 rushing yards and Hunt won coach of the year honors. It was the first time since 2006 that the winners of those four awards came from different schools.

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NAYLOR, WILLIAMS INSPIRE=

Former Bucknell defensive end Robert Naylor suffered a severe spinal injury during the 2014 season, but he walked onto the field with his teammates for the season opener. It wasn't clear at the time of his injury if he'd ever walk again, and his recovery is ongoing. Sadly, Hoyas linebacker Ty Williams sustained neck and spine injuries on the same day as Naylor's triumph and has yet to regain the ability to walk. Williams has been making progress, however, and told The Town Courier newspaper in his hometown of Gaithersburg, Maryland, that it's not a matter of if he will walk again but when.

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SERVICE ACADEMY STUNNER=

Fordham may have gone into its opener with 18 new starters and 30 freshmen after losing 32 seniors to graduation, but that didn't stop the Rams from beating an FBS opponent for the second time in three seasons. Edmonds ran for 110 yards and three touchdowns and caught six passes for 140 yards in a 37-35 win over Army at West Point's Michie Stadium on Sept. 4. The Black Knights scored to make things interesting with 2:33 remaining, but Fordham's defense stuffed the two-point conversion attempt to hold on for the victory.

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ROUGH BEGINNING=

Colgate's surprising run didn't seem possible after a three-game skid to start the season. The worst of it came in a 48-10 pounding at the hands of Navy in the season opener, and after a loss to New Hampshire the next week, Colgate blew a 14-point lead in falling to Yale. "After that game," Hunt remembered, "I said, 'Look, you're doing the right things. Don't stop. It's going to pay off. You can't give into the urge to say this season's over and we're going to give up the hard work we've been doing.' And to their credit, they kept doing what it took."

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LAGGING LEOPARDS=

It was a tough year for Lafayette, which finished 1-10 overall and 0-6 in league play, was shut out twice and held to nine or fewer points on five other occasions. The lone victory came 35-24 at Wagner on Sept. 26, but the Leopards scored 14 points over their next four games. They were outscored 227-92 and outgained by nearly 850 yards in league play. The low point came with back-to-back 42-0 losses against Harvard and Holy Cross in late October, but Lafayette fought hard through its final three games and lost by an average of 11.3 points while averaging 26 points.

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SIDELINE TURNOVER=

One word describes the coaches in this league: loyalty. Next season marks the 17th in the conference for Lafayette coach Frank Tavani, the 13th for Holy Cross coach Tom Gilmore and 11th for Lehigh's Andy Cohen. Joe Susan will embark on his seventh with Bucknell, and while both Hunt and Georgetown's Rob Sgarlata will begin their third seasons at the helm, both have been with their programs for at least 20 years. The only rookie in 2016 will be Fordham's Andrew Breiner, who took over after four years as offensive coordinator when Joe Moorhead accepted the same position at Penn State.