(SportsNetwork.com) - If history is known to repeat itself in the Northeast Conference, then it's a good time to be the St. Francis (Pa.) Red Flash.
The Northeast Conference released its football preseason coaches poll Monday morning during a media conference call, and it was revealed the Red Flash placed seventh and last in the conference rankings.
The irony of placing last in the preseason poll is that, in the past two seasons, the seventh-ranked team has gone on to win the conference come season's end.
Two years ago, it was Wagner that earned the conference's automatic bid to the FCS playoffs after being picked to finish last. Last year, it was Sacred Heart's turn to prove the voters wrong.
Still, after a strong run in 2013 and with a core group of key returning players, there's no questioning why Sacred Heart is the team to beat this season.
The Pioneers, fresh off a season in which they recorded an astonishing 10 wins (a huge turnaround from 2012, when the team won just two games all season and one in the conference), earned six first-place votes to top the preseason rankings. Duquesne, which tied Sacred Heart in 2013 with a 4-2 mark in conference play but suffered the head-to-head loss to bump them from the postseason, garnered the only other first-place vote. The Dukes are second in the poll.
Sacred Heart and coach Mark Nofri return a hefty number of starters from last season's campaign, including some big names on the offensive side of the ball. Quarterback RJ Noel was a candidate for the 2013 Jerry Rice Award, given annually to the FCS freshman of the year, and running back Keshaudas Spence is a 2014 candidate for the Walter Payton Award, presented to the nation's outstanding player.
Keeping the team's focus from jumping too far ahead is a typical challenge for head coaches, and that's exactly what Nofri will try to quell headed into the season.
"We talked about it, and the feeling (the players) had at the end of last year winning the conference and what it was to walk off the field as winners and to try and repeat that," Nofri said. "Nobody's going to give you anything, even if you're voted preseason all-conference, it doesn't mean you're going to be all- conference again.
"You have to go out and do it week in and week out, you've got to grind it out and you've got to find ways to win. Obviously, we raised the bar here a little bit, but we expected us to win and we did. So we talked about it this year, you've got to come back a little bit stronger."
Among the group of key contributors for the Pioneers is defensive lineman Troy Moore, whose name can be found on the Buck Buchanan Award Watch List entering the season. His name, along with six others from Sacred Heart, are on the All- NEC Preseason Team.
Since the Northeast Conference began sending its league champion to compete in the FCS playoffs four years ago, Duquesne has finished in a tie for the top spot twice. They were two games back from eventual champion Robert Morris in 2010, and they were four games out in 2012.
With returning starting quarterback Dillon Buechel and a handful of veteran players on both sides of the ball, Duquesne will be trying to climb over that last hump to earn its place on the national stage.
Duquesne coach Jerry Schmidt said his Dukes need to simply compete in every game this season and try to avoid the full blunt force of injuries.
"Avoiding the injury bug down the stretch is one of the great challenges at this level," Schmidt said. "Hopefully, we put ourselves in a position again, use our experience from the past, and do some good things throughout the season."
Robert Morris and Central Connecticut State were picked to finish third and fourth, respectively, in the preseason coaches poll. Both programs are under new leadership in 2014, with RMU's John Banaszak (a longtime assistant with the Colonials) taking over for legendary coach Joe Walton, and former New Haven coach Pete Rossomando stepping in for Jeff McInerney at CCSU.
Banaszak was picked to replace Walton, who spent 20 years at the helm of the RMU team since its football program was founded in 1993. Walton led the Colonials to the FCS playoffs in 2010 - the first year the Northeast Conference sent a representative. Robert Morris finished the 2013 season - Walton's last - a game out of first place in the standings at 3-3.
Rossomando takes over a Central Connecticut State program that finished in a tie for last at 2-4 in 2013. The parity in the NEC a year ago was easily apparent.
Wagner was selected to finish fifth in the conference, and Bryant in sixth. Bryant undertakes an extremely tough schedule in the upcoming season, with contests scheduled against CAA Football opponents Stony Brook and Maine, Big South power Liberty and up-and-coming Patriot League squad Bucknell.
Bulldogs coach Marty Fine said the thinking for this year's schedule was to further challenge his team and his players individually to prepare them for the team's in-conference slate.
"We wanted to make it demanding on our players," Fine said. "I think you have to balance how many people you can play in the non-conference games, and playing young guys that can eat up some snaps. At the same time, you need to do it to make yourself tougher, to play a little faster and learn to compete at a higher level."
If the last few seasons were any indication, a demanding fight to the finish will once again determine the champion of the Northeast Conference.
NORTHEAST CONFERENCE FOOTBALL PRESEASON POLL
Head Coaches Poll
1. Sacred Heart (6 first-place votes)
2. Duquesne (1)
3. Robert Morris
4. Central Connecticut
7. Saint Francis (Pa.)
PRESEASON ALL-NEC FOOTBALL TEAM
QB - RJ Noel, Sacred Heart, So.
RB - Rob Hollomon, Central Connecticut State, Sr.
RB - Keshaudas Spence, Sacred Heart, Sr.
WR - Tyler Dube, Sacred Heart, Sr.
WR - Tyrell Holmes, Central Connecticut State, Sr.
WR - Duane Mitchell, Robert Morris, Sr.
TE - Bryan Watts, Wagner, Sr.
OL - Dan Buchholz, Duquesne, Jr.
OL - David Fredrickson, Wagner, Sr.
OL - Tyler Hurd, Central Connecticut State, Jr.
OL - Thurston Kino, St. Francis (Pa.), Sr.
OL - Jaime Martinez, Sacred Heart, Sr.
DL - Jeff Covitz, Bryant, Sr.
DL - Forrest Mason, Robert Morris, Sr.
DL - Troy Moore, Sacred Heart, Sr.
DL - Zach Zidian, Duquesne, Jr.
LB - Josh Alaeze, Central Connecticut State, Sr.
LB - Bishop Neal, St. Francis (Pa.), Sr.
LB - Aaron Reed, Duquesne, So.
LB - James Rentz, Sacred Heart, So.
DB - Antwan Eddie, Robert Morris, Sr.
DB - Gordon Hill, Sacred Heart, Sr.
DB - Lorenzo Jerome, St. Francis (Pa.), So.
DB - Rich Piekarski, Duquesne, Sr.
PK - Austin Crimmins, Duquesne, So.
P - A.J. Firestone, Wagner, Sr.
RS - Antwan Eddie, Robert Morris, Sr.