Bryant may have been considered the Northeast Conference’s preseason favorite if it hadn’t departed for Big South football this fall.

But while the Bulldogs often were in and around the NEC title race, they never finished off a championship during 14 seasons in the conference.

The closers in recent years have been Duquesne and Sacred Heart, who both have five titles apiece since the NEC’s FCS playoff era began in 2010.

Not surprisingly, Sacred Heart, the two-time defending NEC champion, and Duquesne are the teams to beat again this fall. The eight-team race includes newcomer Stonehill.

Here’s a quick look at the upcoming NEC season:

Predicted Order of Finish

*-FCS Playoff Qualifier

1. *Duquesne (7-3, 5-2) – The Dukes have won at least a share of five NEC titles under coach Jerry Schmitt since 2011, but they have earned only two automatic playoff bids in that time. Joe Mischler was the season-opening quarterback before an injury opened the door to Darius Perrantes (1,620 passing yards, 17 touchdowns). Running back Billy Lucas averaged just over 100 rushing yards in the Dukes’ final four games.

2. Sacred Heart (8-4, 6-1) – The Pioneers lost a lot of top NEC talent to graduation and transfers, but return the conference’s offensive player of the year in running back Malik Grant (1,347 rushing yards, 11 total TDs last season). Plus, the offense should be more balanced with transfer wide receiver Devin Young (128 career receptions at Maine) aiding quarterback Marquez McCray. The defense is strongest on the line, where three of last year’s four starters are returning.

3. Saint Francis (5-6, 4-3) – The Red Flash may still be sighing over “what if” because their three NEC losses were by a combined five points last season. Quarterback Justin Sliwoski posted an impressive 162.2 passing efficiency behind 12 TD passes and only one interception. As NEC kickers combined for nearly 76 percent accuracy on field goal attempts, all-conference pick Alex Schmoke was 15 of 17 (88.2 percent), with the two misses coming from beyond 40 yards.

4. Merrimack (5-6, 2-5) – An early win over Patriot League champion Holy Cross highlighted last season, but the Warriors limped to the finish line with injuries and losses in three of the final four games. UConn transfer quarterback Jack Zergiotis (418 yards, three TDs against East Carolina in 2019) will team up with the NEC’s top two pass catchers, wide receiver Jacari Carter (89) and H-back Tyler Roberts (52). Linebacker Rodney Samson racked up 23 tackles against Wagner, and cornerback Darion McKenzie has 29 passes defended (four interceptions) in 33 career games.

5. Central Connecticut State (4-7, 4-3) – With its first three NEC games against Sacred Heart, Saint Francis and Duquesne, CCSU will try turn the title race upside down by midseason. The Blue Devils need better consistency, something quarterback Romelo Williams and running back Nasir Smith must bring to the offense, and linebacker Chizi Umunakwe and safety Jonathan Cabral Martin to the defense.

6. LIU (2-8, 2-5) – New coach Ron Cooper inherits a nice 1-2 offensive punch with running back Jonathan DeBique (590 yards, four TDs) and tight end Owen Glascoe (36 receptions, 555 yards). Defensive back Larry Elder led the LIU with 63 tackles. The Sharks will host Villanova on Sept 10 – the most high-profile home opponent to date for the fourth-year FCS program.

7. Wagner (0-11, 0-7) – Wagner is seeking to end a 20-game losing streak, the longest in the FCS. The Seawolves were outscored by 283 points last season, the subdivision’s second-worst point differential to Bucknell. Titus Leo transitions from linebacker to defensive end and will seek to become the first three-time winner of the NEC’s defensive player of the year award.

8. Stonehill (8-2 Division II) – In their final D-II season, the Skyhawks posted their best record since 2013. Sixth-year coach Eli Gardner gets back playmakers in wide receiver Chris Domercant (21.5 yards per catch on 38 receptions, including nine TDs) and running back Jermaine Corbett. The 2022 schedule is unique through midseason: Division II opponents on Sept. 3 and 10, then a three-week break, Duquesne in the NEC opener on Oct. 1, followed by another bye week.

How the Conference Predicted the Race

(A look back to NEC Football Preseason Media Day)

Five Players to Watch

Jacari Carter, WR, Merrimack – The 5-foot-9 Carter ranked third in the FCS with 89 receptions, including a high of 18 against Maine. Eight of the catches went for touchdowns.

Malik Grant, RB, Sacred Heart (Walter Payton Award preseason nominee) – Grant rescued the Pioneers’ 2021 season while running back Julius Chestnut was sidelined for eight games, including 708 rushing yards in four October games. However, he was held without a touchdown in all of the team’s four losses.  

Titus Leo, DE, Wagner (Buck Buchanan Award preseason nominee) – Leo totaled 71 tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks last season, and the numbers were 17, 5.5 and two, respectively, in a show-stopping performance against Delaware State.

Billy Lucas, RB, Duquesne – Lucas built on his NEC offensive rookie of the year award in spring 2021 with a second-team All-NEC campaign last fall.

Kevin Peprah, DE, Sacred Heart (Buck Buchanan Award preseason nominee) – While earning All-NEC first-team honors for the second consecutive season, Peprah disrupted offenses with 9.5 sacks, four pass breakup and four forced fumbles.

(Four NEC players named to the Stats Perform FCS Preseason All-America Team)

Three Must-See Matchups

Sacred Heart at Central Connecticut State (Sept. 10) – The road team is 7-4 in this series since 2010, which is welcome news to the two-time defending champion Pioneers as they head toward the season’s first NEC matchup.

Sacred Heart at Duquesne (Nov. 5) – This has come to be the biggest game of the NEC schedule. Last season, Sacred Heart scored 24 unanswered points in the second half to post a 31-13 win.

Duquesne at Saint Francis (Nov. 12) – The Western Pennsylvania rivals square off with possible NEC title implications.

FBS Matchups

With a 28-26 win at Ohio U. last season, Duquesne became the first NEC program to defeat an FBS opponent.

This season’s eight matchups involving NEC teams:

Central Connecticut State: UConn (Sept. 3); Duquesne: Florida State (Aug. 27) and Hawaii (Sept. 17); LIU: Toledo (Sept. 1) and Kent State (Sept. 17); Saint Francis: Akron (Sept. 1); Wagner: Rutgers (Sept. 10) and Syracuse (Oct. 1)

Fast Fact

Two conference losses are not such a sweet thing in the NEC. In the last 16 seasons, a champ has had more than one conference loss only in 2013 – a tie share between Sacred Heart and Duquesne.