By Justin Zackal
Football is best segmented in fours, as in four quarters and four downs. For the sake of previewing the Presidents’ Athletic Conference (PAC) football season, here are the 11 teams and where they fit into four tiers entering the 2015 season:
FIRST THINGS FIRST
Washington & Jefferson (10-2, 7-1 PAC in 2014) is in a class of its own. The Presidents have won 24 PAC titles and are again the favorite to win the conference as they were in eight of the last 16 preseason polls. W&J returns 18 starters, nine from an offense that ranked seventh in the nation with more than 500 yards per game and 15th in the country with a 41.5 scoring average.
“Yes, there are some expectations floating around the program,” said 13th-year head coach Mike Sirianni, who led the Presidents to the second round of the NCAA Division III playoffs last year. “But just because we were good last year doesn’t mean that we’ll be good this year. We’ve been in this position before, but we know that it doesn’t necessarily indicate how the season will play out.”
Junior QB Pete Coughlin is back after completing 65.5 percent of his passes for 3,257 yards and 31 touchdowns in his first year as a full-time starter. He’ll be protected by the likes of senior OL Zack Crossey, a unanimous preseason first team All-America selection and two-time, all-PAC first team selection. W&J is “loaded” at defensive line, according to Sirianni, led by senior DE Jon Turner, who was an all-region selection after registering 11.5 sacks last year.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: W&J keeping its foot on the throttle. Sirianni claims his team peaked too early last year, reaching a nadir with a 31-28 overtime loss to Waynesburg in the regular-season finale. Look for more playing time by reserves to keep the Presidents fresh, especially if W&J wins at Thomas More in week four, followed by four of its final six games at home.
ON SECOND THOUGHT
Thomas More (8-2, 7-1 PAC) may have shared the PAC title with W&J last year, and its only two losses last year were to teams that advanced to the second round of the NCAA playoffs, but the Saints lost 51-28 to W&J and they will have a new coach for the first time in eight years as former John Carroll head coach Regis Scafe takes over for Jim Hilvert. The adjustment will be eased by 19 starters returning, including third-year QB Jensen Gebhardt (2,235 yards, 17 TDs in 2014).
Only four teams posted winning records last year, and Thomas More will not play Bethany (6-5, 5-3 PAC) for the second straight year. Bethany returns 17 starters, including all five offensive linemen and senior WR Eric Blinn, the PAC’s leading receiver with 9.6 catches per game.
“This has a chance to be a great season for our program,” said third-year head coach Bill Garvey.
That leaves Waynesburg (8-3, 6-2 PAC), a team Thomas More beat 21-14 on the road last year, as the remaining contender in this tier. Waynesburg will benefit from a solid offensive line and all-conference, all-purpose back Willie Leavell returning. However, the Yellow Jackets are without a quarterback entering the season after the graduation of two-time, first-team all-PAC signal-caller Carter Hill.
“We are going to start a rookie quarterback … and I mean a rookie,” said Waynesburg 11th-year head coach Rick Shepas, emphasizing a possible freshman under center.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Perhaps Waynesburg will have a quarterback established by the time the Jackets close the season with appointments at Thomas More and W&J to end the season. But look out when Bethany comes to town Sept. 26. The Bison return a defense led by All-America defensive end Nadim Raddar. The reigning PAC Defensive Player of the Year led the league with 12.5 sacks and a quarter of his tackles were for losses. He had 9 stops — and only a half sack – in Bethany’s 33-27 win over Waynesburg last year.
Six PAC teams won either three or four games last year. Who will emerge from mediocrity and secure a winning record this year?
How about Westminster (4-6, 4-4 PAC)? The Titans overcame some hard luck early in the season before winning four out of five games including their last three. They lost to Bethany in overtime, Carnegie Mellon on 50-yard, crossbar-aided field goal and Waynesburg by five points. The Titans return 19 starters, including sophomore QB Paul Columbo (2,197 yards, 21 TDs in 2014) and all five offensive linemen.
After an 0-10 season in 2013, Saint Vincent (4-6, 4-4 PAC) continues to rise, as the Bearcats welcome back 17 starters including three-time all-PAC linebacker Renny LaRue-Holloman.
“We’re never satisfied and we’re not going to be satisfied (with a four-win improvement),” said second-year head coach Ron Dolciato, who took over the program with 55 players and will now have 160 players report to campus this month. “We’re changing the culture of the program.”
Carnegie Mellon (4-6, 3-5 PAC) and Case Western Reserve (3-7, 3-5 PAC) are University Athletic Association (UAA) members who compete in the PAC as affiliate members and were eligible for the league crown for the first time last year. Case, entering last year with seven straight winning seasons, figured to be a contender in the PAC, especially after beating its rival CMU, 30-0, in the season opener. But neither of the UAA teams could gain much footing, particularly in a league where offense comes easy. Look for Case to bounce back this year with 18 returning starters. CMU, meanwhile, returns 23 players who started at least three games last year.
Thiel (4-6, 3-5 PAC) and Geneva (3-7, 2-6 PAC) are the least likely teams to emerge from this tier with winning records. Thiel ranked in the top third of the PAC in offense last year but the bottom third in defense. Look for more of the same with junior QB Ryan Radke (school-record 2,946 total yards in 2014) back as one of seven returning starters on offense and only five returning starters on defense, mostly in the secondary.
Geneva returns 17 starters and the Golden Tornadoes beat Bethany and Saint Vincent last year, but longtime head coach Geno DeMarco acknowledged that the transition from a successful NAIA program to a contender in NCAA Division III has been “painfully slow.”
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Improvements made by second-year coaches. With Dolciato at Saint Vincent and Scott Benzel at Westminster more established with recruiting and implementing their systems, it will be interesting to see which way these programs go, especially by the time they play each other at Westminster on Oct. 31.
FOURTH AND LONG
Grove City (0-10, 0-8 PAC) was 30-30 in its previous six seasons before last year’s winless campaign. The Wolverines have a lot of work to do.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Grove City has a large senior class of at least 22 fourth-year players and 32nd-year head coach Chris Smith will retire after the season. Former Grove City quarterback Andrew DiDonato was brought in to succeed Smith after serving a one-year apprenticeship this year as offensive coordinator. At what point during the season will Grove City start playing for the future?