(STATS) - Few college coaches have a more difficult opening-week challenge than Wagner's Jason Houghtaling.
First, of course, is his Week 1 FBS opponent.
Then there's that inescapable shadow to contend with.
Houghtaling takes over the Seahawks from Walt Hameline, who stepped down last season following a 34-year career at the helm in Staten Island. Hameline, who remains in his longtime role as athletic director, guided Wagner to the 1987 Division III championship and posted 23 winning seasons. His 223 wins rank fifth among active head FCS coaches.
Those credentials are in stark contrast to Houghtaling, a rookie head coach who at 34 is the third-youngest in Division I. Only David Archer at Cornell and Murray State's Mitch Stewart, who both turn 34 in November, are younger.
Any opening game would present a difficult set of challenges for a young coach in his debut, but Houghtaling will be leading the Seahawks into a road matchup with Rice, an FBS program that went 8-5 last season and rolled to a 30-6 victory over Fresno State in the Hawaii Bowl. The Owls are 25-15 the past three seasons, the most successful three-year stretch in program history.
As if that wasn't daunting enough, Wagner will face two FBS opponents for the first time, visiting BYU on Oct. 24.
"This is the toughest schedule that I've seen since I've been a part of Wagner College football," said Houghtaling, who served seven seasons as a Seahawks assistant. "The names that jump out obviously are Rice and BYU. Those are both Division I-A games."
The Seahawks have lost their only three games against FBS schools, most recently falling 34-3 to Florida International last season.
"If you talk to our kids, they love playing against top-level competition at top-level facilities," Houghtaling said. "They get a chance to jump on a charter plane and it's just, all in all, a great experience for everyone involved in the program from alumni to the Touchdown Club members who make the trip with us."
The good news is Houghtaling isn't exactly taking over a rebuilding job. Wagner has gone 19-16 the past three seasons, winning the Northeast Conference title in 2012 and sharing the regular season championship with Sacred Heart last year after a 5-1 league mark.
The Seahawks, picked to finish fourth in the NEC Preseason Coaches Poll, return seven starters on offense and five on defense.
Receiver Anthony Carrington is one of those players to watch. The fifth-year senior, one of five team captains, was limited to eight receptions in three games before a knee injury ended his 2014 season. The lanky Carrington totaled 52 catches for 741 yards and five touchdowns the previous two years, giving a glimpse of his ability.
"We expected huge things from Anthony last season prior to his knee injury and he's a guy, through three games, who made explosive plays," Houghtaling said. "He was a big, big loss last year. He was our big-play threat at the wide receiver position."
The defense is anchored by defensive tackle Al Page, another fifth-year senior who is in his second season with the Seahawks after transferring from Rutgers. He is one of four players from the NEC to make the STATS FCS Preseason All-America Team. Page earned first team all-conference honors last season, amassing 45 tackles, including 18 for loss, three sacks and six quarterback hurries.