Monday, August 30, 2010

Best Case, Worst Case

The best of times, the worst of times. For the Patriot League, it's closer to status quo. For now.

Some PL fans would tell you things haven't been better, with Lehigh-Lafayette (the only semi-authorized rivalry in the conference) selling out every year and plenty of "also receiving votes" mentions among its teams in the agate type of the AP and Sports Network polls. But for a league which is now seven years removed from a serious run in the NCAA I-AA playoffs, has declared one of its schools ineligible, and faces a potential schism over scholarships, the glass is decidedly half-empty.
Not to worry yet, however--there's plenty of football ahead of any December icebergs.

For the last five years, PL fans have seen a fairly stable set of standings, with three on top, two that move up and down the ladder, and two squarely in the back seat. That's been exciting if you live in Allentown or Easton, not so good for our friends in Lewisburg, and a great big yawn inside the Beltway. The lack of interest exhibited by Georgetown and Washington-area fans isn't expected to change in 2010, in part because the league standings aren't significantly changing, at least not this year.

Looking north of the Mason-Dixon line, where is the PL race headed?

First, you'd be hard pressed not to pick Colgate as a team with a bright season ahead of it. No surprise, really, as Dick Biddle has built perhaps the most consistent program in I-AA nonscholarship football outside of Harvard. In Biddle's 15 years in Hamilton, the Red Raiders have won less than seven games just twice and are coming off consecutive 9-3 seasons. Nine wins might be a tall order in 2010, but they won't be far removed from it.

The Red Raiders return 15 starters including QB Greg Sullivan (135-230-5, 18 TD, 2,740 total yards) and RB Nate Eachus, both contenders for conference Player of The year honors. Colgate has to rebuild its lines but there's little doubt they can do so, and while an early season schedule (including Furman and Syracuse) may have the Red Raiders 1-2 heading into its Oct. 2 game with Georgetown, but October is the time the Colgate momentum should kick in, with GU followed by Princeton, Cornell, Holy Cross and Lehigh.

With a matchup with Lafayette (Nov. 4) forthcoming into November, that game might decide the PL title. Colgate finishes with Bucknell and Fordham, and Biddle is 6-2 in the month of November over the past three seasons in-conference.

Best Case: The Red Raiders open some eyes with a close loss to Syracuse and never look back, sweeping the PL and returning to playoff glory.
Worst Case: The tough early schedule keeps Colgate from any momentum, and it settles for a middle of the road PL finish.

The decade has been the best of times for Lafayette, however. It was not that long ago that the very future of football at College Hill was being debated and even a move to Division III was not out of the question. Frank Tavani made believers out of a lot of people and the Leopards are regular contenders for PL honors.

Lafayette lost 14 starters from last season's team and it would be easy to knock them down a few rungs as a result, but its schedule gives them a fighting chance to be a key player in the league heading into November. Lafayette takes full advantage of the PL-Ivy scheduling arrangements which often leave Bucknell and Georgetown on the outside looking in, with four of its five non-conference games against Ivy opponents, with the Leopards favored in three of them. The bulk of Lafayette's PL schedule waits until November, with Colgate, Holy Cross, and Lehigh in consecutive order. By then, Tavani will have a seasoned group of players and they will give each of the three a tough battle.

Best Case: The Leopards are good in September, better in October, and sweep November, riding into the playoffs at Lehigh's expense.
Worst Case: Too many newcomers keep Lafayette one year away from a serious title run.

Holy Cross won the PL title for the first time in 17 years in 2009, and despite the loss of QB Dominic Randolph, HC is not to be underestimated. The Crusaders' biggest enemy might be its schedule, opening with Howard but going back to back with Massachusetts and Harvard. The Sep. 26 game at Georgetown suggests a brief respite before games with Fordham and Brown, so the Crusaders could be just 4-3 heading into a three week stretch in late October of Colgate, Lehigh, and Lafayette before ending with Bucknell. HC lost seven offensive starters but its key will be defense. The offense helped bail out a HC pass defense that was 6th in the PL last season and gave up 18 touchdowns, two fewer than the Hoyas. Rushing defense was fifth in the league. Neither of those stats will be enough if HC expects to contend for the playoffs.

Best Case: The defense rises to the occasion, and HC repeats as PL champions.
Worst Case: The defense stalls while the offense fails to carry the day, and HC finishes under .500.

Perhaps the most interesting story in the PL (regardless what Fordham fans might think) is Lehigh. Some fans are putting pressure on fourth year coach Andy Coen to deliver in 2009, and some would not hesitate to hand him the same road map that Pete Lembo took. The problem for Coen is that he lined up the toughest schedule in the conference, and the impact of the first four weeks of the Engineers' season will tell much as to whether the Lehigh train is ready to roll, or it has derailed before the finish line.

Lehigh returns nine offensive starters and despite a change at QB, will line up behind junior Chris Lum with an experienced and hungry group of linemen. Defensively, the Engineers were second in the league last year and returns 8 of 11 starters--all the pieces are in place for a Lehigh championship run. So what's the problem?

Unlike Kevin Kelly, who needs wins as much or more than Andy Coen, the Lehigh schedule is no sunken log. A road game at Drake figures to be a win, but if it is not, the alarm bells will go off on South Mountain. Returning home, Lehigh gets three home games in a four week stretch with Villanova, Princeton, New Hampshire, and Fordham, and a 2-2 split is not unlikely. (Bear in mind, however, that Lehigh is 1-9 in non-conference games over the last two seasons, according to the Sports Network.) Home games with Bucknell and Colgate lead to a November ending with three straight on the road.

At least statistically, Lehigh is favored over just two of its five non-conference opponents, and under that scenario the Engineers would almost need to run the table in the PL schedule. Anything less than 7-4 (or a loss to Lafayette) is going to be a point of indigestion to Lehigh fans, and a 6-5 finish will not be well taken.

Best Case: Lehigh is battle-tested early and steamroll the rest of the league en route to a deep run in the NCAA playoffs.
Worst Case: Early losses and fan discontent overshadow the Engineers, who fall out of contention and face a program overhaul in 2011.

The "other" story in the PL this season is Fordham, whose brinksmanship with the Patriot League scholarship rules resulted in the Rams being declared ineligible for the league title, but able to sign 15 recruits to full scholarships for this fall. Some Fordham fans would have you believe this will set the Rams ahead of the entire league, but one class just isn't enough.

For the Rams, 5-6 in 2009, replacing QB John Skelton remains a priority along with patching a leaky defense that was sixth in the league last season. Fordham has the second-weakest schedule in the 2010 PL having added Division II Assumption to the schedule, but could be undefeated heading into playing PL schools on October 2 versus Holy Cross. (Remember, games with Fordham do not count in conference standings.) Fordham will certainly have a better record in 2010, but an at-large bid is all but out of the question with an average Sagarin rating of 197 for its non-conference schedule.

Best Case: Fordham's scholarships dominate the league, winning an at-large bid and leading the rest of the league (sans Georgetown) to join the scholarship bandwagon.
Worst Case: The scholarships don't provide a measurable impact on the field, and Fordham begins to look outside the PL for its future football home.

Bucknell seems mired in the 5 or 6 slot in Patriot play, with just two winning seasons since 2002. By point of comparsion, the recent Bison are a lot like Cincinnati in Big East men's basketball--one or two very good players, but never enough to carry them to the finish line. New coach Joe Susan will look to revive a Bucknell offense that finished sixth in the league and will rely on seven returning starters on defense to hold the line.

Bucknell's early season schedule is cooperative, with winnable games versus Duquesne, Marist, and Dartmouth, but the rest of the schedule (beginning in October with Cornell and Penn and ending with Colgate and Holy Cross) will be a considerable challenge. Like Georgetown, Bucknell must see 2010 as a year of progress, not of titles.

Best Case: Bison move up the PL ladder and finish above .500 in the league.
Worst Case: Bison are passed by Georgetown and take a seat at the back.

And Georgetown? Well, I'm sure there are some Lehigh Valley reporters that have all but penciled in 0-11 in their game programs, and they are not afraid to call the Hoyas on the carpet for recent performances.

0-11? That will not happen.

A preview of the Hoyas follows Thursday.