This spring FCS season has had many headlines such as North Dakota State losing their first game since 2017 and Deion Sanders and Jackson State landing big TV appearances on ESPN.
One conference that has stayed under the radar is the Northeast Conference, which has played their games on Sundays the past few weeks.
Amidst the lack of fanfare, a conference race is brewing in the NEC. After last week’s games, here is where the NEC stands:
- Duquesne 3-0
- Sacred Heart 2-1
- Bryant 2-1
- LIU 1-2
- Merrimack 0-2
- Wagner 0-2
This is quite the conference race, and one that almost no one knows about due to the unheralded football reputation of the NEC. Since starting to earn an auto-bid to the FCS Playoffs in 2010, the NEC’s representative has only advanced to the second round twice.
For most of the country, the NEC is an afterthought, and the conference’s changes this decade reflect this as Albany left for the CAA in 2013 and Monmouth went to the Big South in 2014; this season’s top three teams have likely benefitted most from defending champion Central Connecticut State opting out of the season, as the Blue Devils went 9-3 in 2019.
Now, enter Bryant.
The Bulldogs from Smithfield, Rhode Island have only been Division I since 2008, and had a football program since 1999. Their best season at the FCS level was in 2014, when they went 8-3. The Bulldogs had a chance at the NEC’s outright title that year, starting 4-0 in conference play, but dropped their last two games to eventual co-champs Wagner and Sacred Heart.
Since then, Bulldogs have only mustered two six-win seasons in 2017 and 2018. Yet, like Ball State and San Jose State in the fall, this shortened season may have opened up a window for the Bulldogs.
After a loss to LIU that looks more surprising each week, Bryant has ridden its defense to playoff contention. In the past two weeks, Merrimack and Wagner each could only muster a single touchdown and failed to gain 200 yards as Bryant rebounded from their opening loss.
Arguably, the class of the NEC is Duquesne, who stands at 3-0. After a close opening win over Sacred Heart, another 2-1 team in the mix, the Dukes shut out Wagner 17-0 and beat LIU 35-17. Joe Mischler and Garrett Owens lead a balanced attack with Mischler throwing for 790 in three games and Owens rushing for 296. Mischler’s top target, Cyrus Holder is one of the top deep threats in the country averaging 24.7 yards per catch on 12 catches.
Like the cliche says, the unstoppable force of the Duquesne offense will meet the immovable object that is the Bryant defense, allowing 204 yards per game on defense.
The scenario is simple for Bryant. Win and they’re likely in the NEC title game to face Duquesne. Sacred Heart is also 2-1, but lost their head-to-head battle with Duquesne, so the Dukes would own the tiebreaker over the Pioneers. Sacred Heart gets in with a win over Wagner and a Duquesne win, as they would be the lone 3-1 squad below the 4-0 Dukes.
If Sacred Heart and Bryant both lose, then things have the potential to get wild. If Sacred Heart and Bryant both lose, then the potential for the NEC to have up to FOUR 2-2 teams behind Duquesne. The following scenarios would have to play out:
- Sacred Heart loses to Wagner this weekend, and Wagner wins their make-up game vs Merrimack. Wagner and Sacred Heart are both 2-2.
- Bryant loses to Duquesne. Bryant is at 2-2.
- LIU beats Merrimack. LIU ends at 2-2
*This is the ultimate nightmare scenario with FOUR teams in position for a spot in the title game.
- Sacred Heart loses to Wagner. Sacred Heart ends at 2-2
- Bryant loses to Duquesne. Bryant ends at 2-2.
- Merrimack beats LIU and Wagner and ends at 2-2.
*This one is still unenviable, but somehow more manageable with three teams at 2-2.
Despite having a four-game slate for each of their teams, the Northeast Conference has it all. From first time teams, to insane conference championship races. Bryant’s game against Duquesne can bring clarity to the race or make it chaotic.