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In the FCS Huddle: A lot to celebrate in Patriot

<p>If it's a day of the week that ends with a "y," then Lafayette football coach Frank Tavani and Lehigh counterpart Andy Coen will be answering questions about this year's historic meeting of their teams.</p>

Bethlehem, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - If it's a day of the week that ends with a "y," then Lafayette football coach Frank Tavani and Lehigh counterpart Andy Coen will be answering questions about this year's historic meeting of their teams.

While the Patriot League season will be defined by the 150th meeting of college football's most-played rivalry, don't look beyond everything that will lead up to the big game at Yankee Stadium on Nov. 22.

Everybody in the league is thinking this could be an exceptional season.

The Patriot League already has an exceptional team - Fordham - to steal attention away from Lafayette-Lehigh 150 ... if that's possible. The Rams were installed as an overwhelming favorite to win the league title at football media day on Wednesday, building on their breakout 2013 season when they set a school record with 12 wins.

Fordham wasn't eligible for the Patriot title the last four years because they jumped ahead of the rest of the league in offering football scholarships. That much of the rest of the league (all but Georgetown) followed with their first scholarship classes last year elevated the play and put a lot of first-year players into key roles on their teams.

Adding a second class this season will only raise the play. And it still goes without saying that upperclassmen will be the most influential players in the league.

An impressive 18 of the 28 players who earned Patriot preseason honors have already earned first-team postseason honors in their career, and the other 10 have appeared on the second team. A whopping 23 of the 28 players are seniors, with two of them - Fordham quarterback Michael Nebrich and linebacker Stephen Hodge - returning to build off seasons in which they were named the league offensive and defensive player of the years, respectively.

"Obviously, Fordham what they put on the field last year and what they have coming back, it's a great football team," said Colgate's first-year head coach, Dan Hunt, who's hardly new to the league, having been on the Raiders' staff as an assistant for 19 seasons.

"But if anything this league has shown, a lot of times what we think is going to happen today, you come back in November and it didn't quite work out that way. And I think this league is filled with quality people, quality coaches and good football players. I think it is trending in the right way."

Incredibly, six of the seven Patriot teams started a freshman quarterback at some point last season, including league rookie of the year Peter Pujals of Holy Cross. Another frosh signal caller, Drew Reed, led Lafayette to the league title, handing Fordham its only regular-season loss when Nebrich was out with an injury. Plus, Bucknell running back C.J. Williams and offensive lineman Julie'n Davenport and Fordham punter Joe Pavlik are back as sophomores on the Patriot preseason team.

"I think all of us are seeing a little better student-athlete as a whole," Tavani said. "A little bit stronger students, better players, players that now have a high interest - they like Lafayette academically or Lehigh or anybody in the Patriot League. The financial-need analysis was a bit of a roadblock for a lot of families. Now that's removed and people are chasing us."

On the field, the rest of the league will chase Fordham, which will make some national television appearances, host Lafayette on Oct. 3 in what will be a revenge game and trot out the most experienced team in the Bronx - sorry, Yankees.

The Rams finished ninth in The Sports Network FCS Top 25 last season and return 44 letter-winners, including 11 seniors on the all-league preseason squad (seven on offense).

"The majority of our starters last year were juniors, now they all enter into their last year. It's a term I refer to as 'senior-year urgency,'" third-year coach Joe Moorhead said. "So you could see through our winter conditioning, our spring ball and throughout our summer workouts, I don't want to say they have an extra gear, but they understand this is their last go-around and a lot of guys who have played a lot of really good football and won a lot of games."

"Now that we're at the point that we're at, we're still a very humble team," Nebrich pointed out. "Having the guys back that we do, especially offensively, it gives you so much confidence going into the year."

Teams will hope to look like Fordham when they also have scholarship classes in all of their classes. But optimism abounds across a league that last season had two FCS playoff qualifiers (Fordham and Lafayette) for the first time since 2005.

The Patriot League is a season away from celebrating its 30th anniversary, so in what should be a terrific campaign this year, most are happy to take pride in what will wrap up the regular season: Lafayette and Lehigh selling out Yankee Stadium.

"People always ask me, 'How are you going to keep that game in perspective?'" Coen said. "We always keep that game in perspective. We play 10 games every year and then we play Lafayette, and that's the way it's always been for us. It's like a second season for us. Now this year, it will be the most celebrated second season for both schools in our history. (The) 150th game, an iconic venue ... I think it's very fitting for these two schools.

"I think it's going to be great to help promote the Patriot League as well. It gives people an idea of really how good a product Patriot League football is."

PATRIOT LEAGUE FOOTBALL PRESEASON POLL

Head Coaches and Sports Information Directors Poll

1. Fordham (12 first-place votes), 72 points

2. Lehigh, 54

3. Lafayette (2), 51

4. Bucknell, 43

5. Colgate, 33

6. Holy Cross, 29

7. Georgetown, 12

PRESEASON ALL-PATRIOT LEAGUE FOOTBALL TEAM

Offensive Player of the Year - Michael Nebrich, QB, Fordham

Defensive Player of the Year - Stephen Hodge, LB, Fordham

Offense

QB - Mike Nebrich, Fordham, Sr.

RB - Ross Scheuerman, Lafayette, Sr.

RB - C.J. Williams, Bucknell, So.

FB/HB - Ed Pavalko, Colgate, Sr.

WR - Sam Ajala, Fordham, Sr.

WR - Tebucky Jones, Fordham, Sr.

WR - Brian Wetzel, Fordham, Sr.

TE - Dan Light, Fordham, Sr.

OL - Luke Chiarolanzio, Lafayette, Sr.

OL - Ned Daryoush, Lehigh, Sr.

OL - Julie'n Davenport, Bucknell, So.

OL - Mason Halter, Fordham, Sr.

OL - Lonnie Rawles, Bucknell, Sr.

RS - Kalif Raymond, Holy Cross, Jr.

RS - Matt Smalley, Lafayette, Jr.

PK - Michael Marando, Fordham, Sr.

Defense

DL - Demetrius Baldwin-Youngblood, Bucknell, Sr.

DL - Brett Biestek, Fordham, Grad

DL - Tim Newton, Lehigh, Sr.

DL - DeAndre Slate, Fordham, Sr.

LB - Nick Alfieri, Georgetown, Sr.

LB - Evan Byers, Bucknell, Sr.

LB - Stephen Hodge, Fordham, Sr.

LB - Kris Kent, Colgate, Sr.

DB - Mike Armiento, Colgate, Sr.

DB - Matt Smalley, Lafayette, Jr.

DB - Matthew Steinbeck, Bucknell, Sr.

DB - Ian Williams, Fordham, Sr.

P - Joe Pavlik, Fordham, So.

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