By William Bowman
The Daily Item
Coming off a historic run in the FCS playoffs, Lehigh was tabbed as the preseason favorite at the Patriot League’s annual football media day on Wednesday, while Bucknell, following a huge turnaround season, was picked to finish last.
The Mountain Hawks have won 14 consecutive games inside the Patriot League and have won NCAA tournament games in each of the past two seasons. Last year it reached the FCS quarterfinals — the deepest run by a Patriot League squad since Colgate played in the 2003 final — and while it was without the services of Payton Award finalist Chris Lum, Lehigh received 11 of 14 first-place votes to easily outdistance the field. Lehigh was followed by Holy Cross, Colgate, Georgetown, Lafayette and Bucknell. Fordham is once again ineligible for the league title.
The Bison are coming off a five-win improvement in 2011, jumping from 1-10 to 6-5 last year, the program’s first winning season since 2006. The fact that Bucknell was picked to finish last in the preseason ranking did not ruffle anyone’s feathers on Wednesday.
“The preseason rankings, they’re for the media and fans to get excited about,” said Bucknell fullback Travis Friend, one of three BU players on the Patriot League’s first ever Preseason All-Patriot team. “Nobody on our team takes that stuff to heart. We are just looking forward to proving a lot of people wrong.”
Joe Susan, entering his third season as the Bucknell head coach, wasn’t even thinking about the season yet. Thanks to a bye the opening week, the Bison don’t start the year until Sept. 8 when they visit Marist, a week after most teams open.
“We try to keep things as simple as possible for our guys; we don’t want them looking too far ahead,” he said. “Right now we want to have a successful media day. Then we want to have a successful first day of camp and we will move on from there.”
Five teams are trying to close the gap on Lehigh, which has won the last two Patriot League titles and finished the 2011 season ranked No. 5 in the nation. Coach Andy Coen’s group has raised the bar in recent seasons, but it is a bar now raised for the entire league, executive director Carolyn Schlie Femovich said.
“Lehigh’s success will be difficult to replicate, but one that is now the standard,” Femovich said.
Bucknell placed three players on the preseason All-Patriot League team: running backs Tyler Smith and Friend, along with linebacker Beau Traber. Smith was a first-team All-Patriot pick last year after leading the league in rushing as a junior, while Friend is a two-time All-Patriot honoree at fullback.
Traber was one of the anchors of a Bucknell defense that ranked among the nation’s best against the run (ranked third nationally) and led the country in turnover margin.