When you think of Patriot League football today, the Holy Cross dynasty feels like everything.

When you think of the league through the years, it’s more Lehigh than Holy Cross and perhaps any other program.

In 2023, the Mountain Hawks are trying to go back to the future, anxious to break out of a five-year slump, although the fifth-place prediction in the Patriot League preseason poll on Tuesday suggested some growing pains are still likely under first-year coach Kevin Cahill.

Not surprisingly, Holy Cross was installed as a prohibitive favorite to win a record fifth straight PL title, with quarterback Matthew Sluka and linebacker Jacob Dobbs named preseason offensive and defensive players of the year, respectively.

Last season, Holy Cross (12-1) didn’t lose a game until an FCS quarterfinal at eventual national champion South Dakota State. The Crusaders, under Bob Chesney, matched the 1998-2001 Lehigh teams for the PL mark with a fourth consecutive title and upped their league winning streak to 16 games (the PL doesn’t count their victory over Bucknell in the spring 2021 league championship game as part of the streak).

Lehigh, meanwhile, was 2-9, including 2-4 in the PL, during coach Tom Gilmore’s fourth and final campaign – the most overall losses in a Mountain Hawks’ season since the 1966 squad was 0-9. They are 12-35 overall and 10-17 in the PL since 2018 with no finish better than a tie for third place – stunning for a program that has the most championships (12) since the league’s inception in 1986.

Patriot League Football Champions

The Mountain Hawks have large senior and sophomore classes, and are particularly experienced in the offensive skills positions, so they could be ahead of schedule in Cahill’s first season. The 48-year-old former quarterback at Springfield spent the last 11 years on the Yale staff, serving as associate head coach and offensive coordinator with the Ivy League championship squad last season. He’s inherited a squad that has struggled offensively in recent seasons, averaging just 321.5 yards and 17.2 points per game a year ago.

“We know where we are and we know who we are,” Cahill said during a PL virtual media day conference call, “and we have to continue to redefine ourselves, redefine our program. Just by hard work, it’s the way we’re going about things. By no means are we perfect right now; we are a work-in-progress. These kids have bought into everything we’d tried to do here as a program – with leadership, with development.”

The key returnees include wide receiver Geoffrey Jamiel, the 2022 PL rookie of the year who caught 53 passes, and senior linebacker Mike DeNucci, who racked up 93 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks. Both players were selected to the PL preseason team.

In addition, senior quarterback Dante Perri has made starts in Lehigh’s last 16 games and 17 overall times, and accounted for 767 passing yards and five touchdowns (three passing, two rushing) in the final two games last season. Defensive tackle Dean Colton returns after being the first Mountain Hawks’ player to score two defensive touchdowns in a season since 2001.

Lafayette vs. Lehigh is the most-played rivalry in college football, set to turn 159 on Nov. 18.

Lehigh, like everybody else in the PL, is chasing Holy Cross, which finished No. 6 nationally last season. The Crusaders boast another veteran squad and surely goals that extend beyond the PL, given they’ve posted a win over an FBS program in back-to-back seasons and have tasted postseason success.  

“We understand that the leading cause of failure is mismanaged success,” Chesney said, “so we’re going to make sure that we manage that success properly. Because we’ve had some, but it’s really ultimately about what we’re about to do, not anything to do with what we just did.”

Patriot League Preseason Poll

1. Holy Cross (2022: 12-1, 6-0), 72 points (12 first-place votes)

2. Fordham (9-3, 5-1), 62 (2)

3. Colgate (3-8, 2-4), 51

4. Lafayette (4-7, 3-3), 39

5. Lehigh (2-9, 2-4), 32

T6. Bucknell (3-8, 2-4), 19

T6. Georgetown (2-9, 1-5), 19

Preseason Offensive Player of the Year

Matthew Sluka, QB, Holy Cross

Preseason Defensive Player of the Year

Jacob Dobbs, LB, Holy Cross