The 2023 Northeast Conference race appears rich in title contenders, but defending champion Saint Francis may want to pound its chest over the following:
Last season, the Red Flash swept through the conference with a 7-0 record, winning all but one of the games by 20+ points, and by 28 points on average.
Merrimack made it to the final week of the regular season unscathed in the NEC, and this year, it’s eligible for FCS playoffs for the first time. It’s a conference that has had seven different programs advance to the second season since it gained an automatic bid in 2010.
Duquesne and Sacred Heart? Oh, yes, regulars in the title race who tied for third in the NEC’s preseason poll.
Nobody’s conceding anything to Saint Francis just yet.
Here’s a preview of the upcoming NEC season:
Predicted Order of Finish
*-FCS Playoff Qualifier (With 2022 Record)
1. Saint Francis (9-3, 7-0) – A big question is how quickly quarterback Cole Doyle, the NEC’s 2022 offensive player of the year, develops chemistry with a receivers unit that lost transfers Makai Jackson and Elijah Sarratt, who combined for 22 touchdown catches. The return of Dawson Snyder (38 receptions, 758 yards, four TDs) softens the blow on offense, and running back QuaSean Holmes will keep the ball moving behind a veteran offensive line, which features Bailey Iboleon, Seth Osborne and Cole Graham. The NEC-leading defense suffered big losses, but there’s a standout in each unit with D-end Eddie Bierals, linebacker William Middleton and cornerback Kerry Galloway.
2. Merrimack (8-3, 6-1) – The eight wins last year matched the single-season high for a Merrimack program that began in 1996. The Warriors can chase a first FCS playoff bid after completing a four-year reclassification from Division II. While sharing snaps with others at their position, quarterback Gavin McCusker passed for 10 TDs against only three interceptions, and running back Tyvon Edmonds Jr. rushed for 585 yards and five TDs. Opponents also have to put focus on defending H-back Patrick Conroy. A healthier season for defensive end Nick Lenon will make safety Donte Williams (top-returning tackler with 63) and cornerback Garry Rosemond Jr. (four interceptions) even better.
3. Duquesne (4-7, 3-4) – Jerry Schmitt, the dean of NEC coaches, enters his 19th season with the Dukes, who appear ready for a title run following a subpar campaign with injuries and younger players moving into regular roles. Quarterback Darius Perrantes is back to full health, having thrown for 17 TDs in 2021 when he also led the Dukes to the NEC’s only FBS win (28-26 at Ohio U.; the NEC is 1-36 overall) Joey Isabella figures to be his go-to receiver. The defense will remain physical with the likes of defensive linemen A.J. Ackerman and Kevin Kurzinger, linebacker Shane Stump and safety CJ Barnes.
(A look back to Northeast Conference football media day)
4. LIU (4-7, 4-3) – Following an 0-7 start, the Sharks ended last season by taking a bite out of four straight NEC opponents. Their winning streak coincided with then-freshman QB Luca Stanzani stepping into the starting lineup and accounting for 1,275 yards of total offense and 14 TDs. Tight end Owen Glascoe has caught 98 passes and eight TDs over the last two seasons, and wide receiver Michael Love had 51 receptions in his first season in the program. Like Stanzani, defensive end Eric O’Neill was dominating during the winning streak, and he was later named the NEC’s defensive rookie of the year. Michael Coney converted 14 of 19 field-goal attempts.
5. Sacred Heart (5-6, 3-4) – The Pioneers seek to rebound from their first losing season since 2017. With another 1,000+ yard campaign, running back Malik Grant would become the eighth player in NEC history to achieve it three times. The O-line has to cut down on 31 sacks allowed. The linebacker position anchors the always-strong defense: DeAndre Byrd led the way with 59 tackles, while Ernest Howard was second with 50 in only seven games.
6. Stonehill (4-5, 2-5) – The Skyhawks were competitive in their jump from Division II last season, with two of their wins coming against sub-FCS opponents. This year’s 10-game schedule is tougher with 2022 playoff squads New Hampshire and Fordham a part of it. The Skyhawks averaged a conference-high 207.7 rushing yards per game, and return first-team All-NEC running back Jermaine Corbett and an anchor up front in David Satkowski. Additionally, QB Ashur Carraha ranked third in the conference in TD passes (14) as a freshman. Versatile linebacker Sam Murphy and pass rusher David Fuller-Williams are keys on defense.
7. Central Connecticut State (2-9, 2-5) – New coach Adam Lechtenberg arrived from Virginia Tech’s staff, and he was CCSU’s offensive coordinator in 2010 and ’11. The rebuilding Blue Devils are especially inexperienced in the offensive skills positions. Lenctenberg should like how the Blue Devils had a strong rushing attack and were stout against the run last season. It helps to return left tackle Reis Spicer to the O-line plus D-tackle Shayne Manson and linebacker Luquay Washington to plug the line of scrimmage.
8. Wagner (1-10, 1-6) – Despite ending a 26-game losing streak last season, all of the Seahawks’ losses were by 10+ points, so they’re still trying to gain their footing heading into coach Tom Masella’s third full season. From a large group of quarterbacks, UConn grad transfer Steve Krajewski (1,217 yards and seven TDs in 2021) seeks to make an impact. But the Seahawks may think run first with leading rusher Rickey Spruill working behind O-linemen Antonio Williams and Brady Anderson. The defense’s strength is at linebacker with John Gioia and Junior Wily.
How the Conference Predicted the Race
Five Players to Watch
Jermaine Corbett, RB, Stonehill – Averaged 110.9 rushing yards per game and scored 10 TDs as a junior.
Cole Doyle, QB, Saint Francis (Walter Payton Award preseason nominee) – The NEC’s offensive player of the year had 21 TD passes against only three interceptions while ranking fifth in the FCS in passing efficiency (169.6).
Malik Grant, RB, Sacred Heart (Walter Payton Award preseason nominee) – Has surpassed 1,000 rushing yards in back-to-back seasons, totalling 2,711 yards and 27 TDs from scrimmage in that time.
Eric O’Neill, DE, LIU, (Buck Buchanan Award preseason nominee) – Racked up 33 tackles, 14 TFLs, six sacks, nine QB hurries and two forced fumbles in the Sharks’ season-ending, four-game winning streak.
Garry Rosemond Jr., DB, Merrimack – All-NEC pick intercepted four passes in the Warriors’ first three games last season.
(NEC trio named to Stats Perform FCS Preseason All-America Team)
Five Must-See Matchups
1. Merrimack at Saint Francis (Oct. 28) – This is a rematch of last year’s de facto NEC championship game, when both teams entered with 6-0 records. SFU’s Cole Doyle passed for five touchdowns in a 52-23 rout.
Saint Francis at Duquesne (Oct. 21)
Duquesne at Merrimack (Nov. 18)
Sacred Heart at Saint Francis (Sept. 23)
Duquesne at LIU (Sept. 30)
Merrimack (UMass) and Sacred Heart (UConn) will face FBS opponents for the first time this season.
This season’s 10 NEC matchups against FBS programs:
Central Connecticut State: Kent State (Sept. 16); Duquesne: West Virginia (Sept. 9) and Coastal Carolina (Sept. 16); LIU: Ohio (Sept. 2) and Baylor (Sept. 16); Merrimack: UMass (Nov. 4); Sacred Heart: UConn (Nov. 18); Saint Francis: Western Michigan (Aug. 31); Wagner: Navy (Sept. 9) and Rutgers (Sept. 30)
A team losing early in the NEC conference schedule usually faces a precarious spot. In the last 17 seasons, a champion has had more than one conference loss only in 2013 – a co-title between Sacred Heart and Duquesne at 4-2 (in that balanced season, all seven teams finished within two games of each other in the standings).