Duquesne is expected to challenge for the Northeast Conference football title and the automatic bid to the Division I-AA playoffs, Robert Morris should improve slightly, and Saint Francis will finish in its customary position at the bottom of the NEC.
At least, those are the predictions by a vote of the league's nine coaches in a preseason poll released Thursday.
The Dukes return a number of key starters from a 9-2 team that was NEC co-champion and have the makings of a high-octane offense behind quarterback Sean Patterson (2,011 yards passing, 23 touchdowns and 552 yards rushing, including two more touchdowns) and senior running back Larry McCoy, who has rushed for 3,479 career yards and needs 782 to become the school's all-time leader.
The defense has a corps of four solid linebackers and a secondary featuring All-American safety Serge Kona, but coach Jerry Schmitt has to replace the entire front line from a unit that led the league in scoring defense (18.3 points per game) and yards allowed (281.6 per game).
"His work ethic is unbelievable,' Schmitt said of Kona, the NEC 2011 defensive player of the year. "We have some work to do. ... We have some young guys ready to step up."
The linebackers are the strength of the defense -- Chidozie Oparanozie, Horvin Latimer, Derrick Lakins and Dorian Bell.
The biggest question on offense is at receiver, where the top five pass-catchers are gone. Akeem Moore, a redshirt senior wideout, could be the big-play guy the Dukes need if he is fully recovered from a knee injury that sidelined him the final seven games in 2011. A superior athlete, Moore was a starter at free safety as a freshman in '08 and moved to receiver as a sophomore in '09, but was redshirted that season because of an internal injury and had 22 receptions for 322 yards and two touchdowns in '10.
"Our program has got to continue to move forward," Schmitt said. "We're going to have to play to our best every single week to have success because this is a very challenging league."
Robert Morris coach Joe Walton has been around long enough to know he doesn't have to motivate his Colonials by reminding them they were 2-9 and lost their final six games last year.
"If 2-9 doesn't tell them they were bad, nothing will," he said of the Colonials, who return 17 starters -- seven on offense, eight on defense and two specialists. "I guess you could say I'm looking at it as good news that we have so many players back, but they have to re-win their positions.
"We were a bunch of no-names last year. They have to make their own names. We were young last year, and nobody was sure whether they should be in a leadership role or not. We need guys to step up. It has to evolve."
Walton said he is looking for improvement from senior quarterback Jeff Sinclair, who passed for 1,373 yards and 11 touchdowns and rushed for 231 yards and six touchdowns despite missing the final two games with a knee injury. He threw 10 interceptions and was sacked often because he hesitated.
"Our quarterback didn't have the type of year he had as a sophomore," Walton said. "He's been working hard and should make better decisions."
Sinclair and the offense have some question, but the defense should be solid with end Nolan Nearhoof and safety Cam Chadwick the cornerstones.
Saint Francis, 2-9 and last in the NEC for the fourth consecutive season, should be exciting with quarterback John Kelley (1,677 yards passing, 12touchdowns, 440 yards rushing with seven touchdowns) and running back Kyle Harbridge, who set school records last season with 1,430 yards rushing and 14 touchdowns. But the Red Flash won't win many games unless a defense that allowed nearly 500 yards and 44 points per game last season improves.
NOTES -- Duquesne had three players named preseason All-NEC --Patterson, McCoy and Kona. ... .Robert Morris' first-teamers were Nearhoof an Chadwick.