For the third consecutive year, IUP was picked as the favorite in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference Western Division.
The Crimson Hawks received five of the eight first-place votes in the preseason coaches poll, announced Monday at media day at Slippery Rock.
Coach Curt Cignetti was surprised by the poll. IUP has only eight starters returning from 2013, including two on offense.
“This is the third straight year we’ve been picked as the team to beat,” Cignetti said. “The difference is that we had a few more returning starters on the previous two teams.”
Slippery Rock is the defending champion in the West. The Rock posted a 6-1 record. IUP was second with a 5-2 mark. California, Mercyhurst and Gannon each had a 4-3 record to tie for third.
“Everybody picks IUP because of its past history,” California coach Mike Kellar said. “Everybody picks California because of our past history. And the same is true for Slippery Rock. The teams with the best past history are usually at the top in most preseason polls.”
California is No. 2 in the preseason poll with 11 starters returning, while Slippery Rock is No. 3 with 12 returning starters.
“I like the preseason poll because it’s good for the media, the fans, and for the conference,” Slippery Rock coach George Mihalik said. “But the rankings mean nothing once you start the season.”
Slippery Rock and IUP each lost their quarterback to graduation. The Rock must replace Nigel Barksdale, who was voted PSAC West offensive player of the year after leading the conference with 3,736 passing yards and ranking fourth with 30 touchdown passes. IUP lost Mike Box, who threw for 2,078 yards and 17 touchdowns.
“We have a good group of players returning on offense, but the key to our success is to find a replacement for Nigel Barksdale,” Mihalik said.
Edinboro and Gannon have the top two returning quarterbacks. Cody Harris is back for a sixth season at Edinboro after missing all but two games in 2013 with an injury. Harris has 7,261 career passing yards. Gannon’s Liam Nadler returns after throwing for 2,859 yards and 16 touchdowns.
The top returning running back is Mercyhurst’s Brandon Brown-Dukes, who is coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.
Mercyhurst is No. 4 in the poll with 13 starters returning. Gannon is No. 5 with 18 returning starters, the most in the West.