The last time Central Connecticut State played a Northeast Conference game, it finished off a clean sweep of the competition while claiming the 2019 league championship.
CCSU was favored to repeat in the NEC last year, but the pandemic caused the 25th anniversary season to be postponed until this past spring, and the Blue Devils opted out of participating due to an abundance of caution. While it may seem like they have a right to feel they’re still defending a title instead of chasing it, coach Ryan McCarthy doesn’t mind seeing the bull’s-eye sit squarely on Sacred Heart, which claimed the spring title by defeating Duquesne in a first-ever NEC championship game. The Pioneers sat atop the conference’s preseason poll on Tuesday over Duquesne and CCSU, which tied for second.
“We haven’t played in almost two years, and to be honest, the way I’d rather have is us chasing,” McCarthy said. “I’ve been on the end of two different places in the conference, where you come off that championship year. It’s a lot easier to motivate a team when you’re chasing as opposed to being on top.”
A lot of NEC teams know the motivating feeling – the competitiveness of their title races has basically flown under the radar. The conference champ has received an automatic qualifying bid to the FCS playoffs for 11 seasons since 2010, and seven different schools have gone on to represent the league in the second season. Duquesne was the most recent back-to-back champ in 2015 and ’16, although Saint Francis earned the AQ while sharing the title that second year.
With their returning talent, Sacred Heart, CCSU and Duquesne figure to separate themselves from the other five programs (Division I transitioning Merrimack isn’t eligible for the title). Sacred Heart, the favorite, boasts the most NEC preseason all-conference selections with eight, led by marquee running back Julius Chestnut, the active FCS rushing leader (3,063 yards). Duquesne had seven selections and CCSU only three, although all seven of the Blue Devils’ 2020 preseason selections last summer are back.
“Preseason picks are not a big deal, it’s just something that’s on a piece of paper,” Sacred Heart coach Mark Nofri said. “You have to be the guy standing at the end. In November, you want to be the team that’s No. 1. Not in preseason.
“I’m kind of with Ryan (McCarthy) – I like to chase it instead of being the guy with the bull’s-eye on his back.”
Preseason Poll (with spring record unless noted)
1. Sacred Heart (4-1, 2-1 NEC), 4 first-place votes
2.(tie) Duquesne (4-1, 4-0), 2
2.(tie) Central Connecticut State (2019: 11-2, 7-0), 1
4. Bryant (2-2, 2-2)
5. Saint Francis (2019: 6-6, 3-4)
6. Long Island (2-2, 2-2)
7. Wagner (0-2, 0-2)
Note: Merrimack (0-3, 0-3) not title-eligible until 2023.