(STATS) - One week, it might be Fordham running back Chase Edmonds, the next it could be Holy Cross quarterback Peter Pujals.
Could Lehigh's "Big Three" be far behind?
Defenses in the Patriot League are getting pulled in every direction and taxed by tremendous offensive players.
The defenses are asked to just keep up enough to get the ball back to their offense to let it go to work again.
"When you look at the offenses in this league, when you look at the quarterbacks, there's some tremendous skill. It's impossible to defend it all," Holy Cross coach Tom Gilmore said. "I think defenses have to start becoming more and more aggressive, so the offenses don't know what they're doing.
"If you just sit there with base defense, unless you're flat out better than the team you're playing, I think most offenses in this league, if not this country, will pick you apart."
Six of the league's seven teams - all but Georgetown - are returning a senior starting quarterback, a group led by Pujals, Fordham's Kevin Anderson, Colgate's Jake Melville and Lehigh's Nick Shafnisky. And then there are the All-Americans like Edmonds and Holy Cross wide receiver Brendan Flaherty.
To defend the great skill, Patriot teams have to be willing to change the game plan from week to week to stop the different players and styles of offenses.
"You have to be really consistent," Georgetown coach Rob Sgarlata said.
Among the league favorites, defending champion Colgate returns the more complete team over Fordham and Lehigh, but even the Raiders seek improvement on defense in a big way. All three should have excellent offenses in what's been an offensive league.
Following is a team-by-team breakdown of the 2016 Patriot League race and STATS' predicted order of finish:
4. Holy Cross
1. COLGATE RAIDERS=
LOCATION: Hamilton, New York
STADIUM: Andy Kerr Stadium
COACH: Dan Hunt (14-12 in two seasons at Colgate)
LAST SEASON: 9-5 overall, 6-0 Patriot (1st)
STARTERS RETURNING: 17 (9 offense/8 defense)
THREE KEY LOSSES: John Weber, OG; John Quazza, TE; Ty McCollum, CB
ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Jake Melville, QB, Sr. (193-for-351, 2,552 yards, 11 TDs, 2 INTs; 186 carries, 1073 yards, 11 TDs)
ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Pat Afriyie, DE, Jr. (49 TT, 17.5 TFL, 9.5 sacks, 5 QBH, 5 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: James Holland, TB, Jr.; John Maddaluna III, WR, Sr.; Alex Greenawalt, WR, Jr.; Jordi Dalmau, OG, Jr.; Max Hartzman, C, Jr.; Ryan Paulish, OL, Jr.; Grant Siegel, OL, Sr.; Alex Campbell, NT, Sr.; Victor Steffen, DT, Sr.; Brett Field, DE, Sr.; Kyle Diener, LB, Sr.; Chris Morgan, LB, Sr.; Charles Cairnie, LB, Sr.; Abu Daramy, DB, Fr.; Adam Bridgeforth, CB, Sr.; Jonah Bowman, PK, Sr.
OUTLOOK: The Raiders kept playing close games and kept winning them last season, rolling to a perfect record in the Patriot League and then to two road playoff victories (New Hampshire and James Madison) to reach the FCS quarterfinals. They return 17 starters, their kickers and two 2014 starters, DT Steffen and CB Bridgeforth, who were injured for much of last season. Behind QB Melville's lead, the Raiders averaged a league-high 206.4 rushing yards per game. RB Holland was a late-season standout and could threaten the 1,000-yard mark behind the Raiders' veteran offensive line. Maddaluna (62 receptions, 910 yards, 2 TDs) returns as the No. 1 wide receiver and the Raiders are expecting Greenawalt to break out as well. The defense will be physical as usual, featuring potential All-Americans in DE Afriyie and LB Diener, their leading tackler (129) and this year's preseason Patriot defensive player of the year. But the unit left room for improvement as the Raiders were outscored 401-356 despite enjoying their best season since 2003. With such an excellent returning team, it's curious the Raiders opted for only 10 games, including only four at Andy Kerr Stadium.
Sept. 2, at Syracuse
Sept. 17, at Yale
Sept. 24, at Richmond
Oct. 1, Cornell
Oct. 8, at Lehigh*
Oct. 15, at Bucknell*
Oct. 29, Holy Cross*
Nov. 5, at Fordham*
Nov. 12, Lafayette*
Nov. 19, Georgetown*
* - Patriot League game
2. FORDHAM RAMS=
LOCATION: Bronx, New York
STADIUM: Coffey Field
COACH: Andrew Breiner (first season at Fordham)
LAST SEASON: 9-3 overall, 5-1 Patriot (2nd)
STARTERS RETURNING: 18 (10 offense/8 defense)
THREE KEY LOSSES: Garrick Mayweather, OL; Stephen Hodge, LB; J.Q. Bowers, DB
ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Chase Edmonds, RB, Jr. (251 carries, 1,648 yards, 20 TDs; 31 receptions, 383 yards, 5 TDs)
ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Jihaad Pretlow, CB, Sr. (67 TT, 3 TFL, 2 INTs, 12 PBU, 1 FR)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Kevin Anderson, QB, Sr.; Kendall Pearcey, RB, Sr.; Corey Caddle, WR, So.; Austin Longi, WR, So.; Robbie Cantelli, WR, Sr.; Phazahn Odom, Sr., TE; Ben Hartman, OL, Jr.; John Boyd, OL, Sr.; Anthony Coyle, OL, Jr.; Marlon Crook, DL, Sr.; Justin Vaughn, DL, Sr.; Manny Adeyeye, DL, Sr.; George Dawson, LB, Sr.; Niko Thorpe, LB, Jr.; Makay Redd, PK, Sr.; Joe Pavlik, P, Sr.
OUTLOOK: Despite the loss of highly successful coach Joe Moorhead to Penn State, the Rams have had a smooth transition under Andrew Breiner, their former offensive coordinator who at 32 has become one of Division I's younger head coaches. It helps that the Rams return 18 starters and the kickers as they seek a second Patriot title in three seasons and a fourth straight appearance in the FCS playoffs. It all starts with All-America RB Edmonds, who has been spectacular in his first two seasons (4,504 all-purpose yards and 49 touchdowns). Plus, opposing defenses have to stay honest or QB Anderson (229-for-342, 3,183 yards, 32 TDs, 10 INTs) will burn them. He knows how to spread the ball as his top five receivers were between 31 and 37 receptions a year ago. The two points of emphasis must be cutting down on sacks (43 allowed last season) and improving a defense that ranked only fifth in the league in both scoring defense and total defense. The defense lost three of its top four tacklers, although it returns two players, LB Thorpe and CB Pretlow, who were Patriot preseason selections. The Rams are happy to be hosting defending champ Colgate on Nov. 5 and then play at Yankee Stadium a week later against Holy Cross.
Sept. 3, at Navy
Sept. 10, Elizabeth City State
Sept. 24, Penn
Oct. 1, at Monmouth
Oct. 8, Lafayette*
Oct. 15, Yale
Oct. 22, Georgetown*
Oct. 29, Lehigh*
Nov. 5, Colgate*
Nov. 12, Holy Cross* (at Yankee Stadium, New York)
Nov. 19, at Bucknell*
* - Patriot League game
3. LEHIGH MOUNTAIN HAWKS=
LOCATION: Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
STADIUM: Goodman Stadium
COACH: Andy Coen (68-46 in 10 seasons at Lehigh)
LAST SEASON: 6-5 overall, 4-2 Patriot (3rd)
STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (8 offense, 6 defense)
THREE KEY LOSSES: Matt Ford, OL; Matt Laub, DL; Olivier Rigaud, CB
ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Nick Shafnisky, QB, Sr. (196-for-294, 15 TDs, 10 INTs; 151 carries, 674 yards, 12 TDs)
ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Colton Caslow, MLB, Sr. (95 TT, 8 TFL, 1 sack, 2 PBU, 2 QBH)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Dom Bragalone, RB, So.; Troy Pelletier, WR, Jr.; Gatlin Casey, WR, Jr.; Trevor Socarras, WR, Sr.; Derek Knott, WR, Sr.; Tim O'Hara, LT, Jr.; Brandon Short, C, Sr.; Zach Duffy, RT, Sr.; Micah Tennant, LG, Sr.; Tyler Cavenas, DL, Jr.; Jimmy Mitchell, DL, Sr.; Pierce Ripanti, OLB, Sr.; Brandon Leaks, CB, Sr.; Quentin Jones, DB, Jr.; LaQuan Lambert, ROV, R-Sr.; Ed Mish, PK, So.
OUTLOOK: One of the traditional Patriot League powers, Lehigh only lost in the league to Colgate and Fordham last season, and this season it gets the last two champions at home. The Mountain Hawks feature a "Big Three" on offense with QB Shafnisky, RB Bragalone and WR Pelletier. Shafnisky was a touchdown-maker (27) as a junior, Bragalone (1,008 rushing yards, 8 total TDs) was the Patriot League's rookie of the year and Pelletier (78 receptions, 831 yards, 8 TDs) made the All-Patriot first team as a sophomore. While the offense can score in bunches, Lehigh joined Lafayette at the bottom of the Patriot League defensive rankings. Opponents averaged over five yards per carry as well as 451.3 yards and 35.3 points per game. All-Patriot LB Caslow will look to motivate the struggling unit, which gets back Lambert for a fifth season after the standout rover was lost to a season-ending injury in the first game last year. Last year's senior class was the first in more than 20 years to leave campus without winning a Patriot League championship.
Sept. 3, Monmouth
Sept. 10, at Villanova
Sept. 17, at Penn
Sept. 24, at Princeton
Oct. 1, at Yale
Oct. 8, Colgate*
Oct. 15, at Georgetown*
Oct. 22, at Holy Cross*
Oct. 29, Fordham*
Nov. 5, Bucknell*
Nov. 19, at Lafayette*
* - Patriot League game
4. HOLY CROSS CRUSADERS=
LOCATION: Worcester, Massachusetts
STADIUM: Fitton Field
COACH: Tom Gilmore (66-69 in 12 seasons at Holy Cross)
LAST SEASON: 6-5 overall, 3-3 Patriot (4th)
STARTERS RETURNING: 16 (10 offense/6 defense)
THREE KEY LOSSES: Kalif Raymond, WR/RS; Mike Galantini, DT; Matt Bhaya, SS
ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Peter Pujals, QB, Sr. (286-for-484, 3,195 yards, 28 TDs, 11 INTs; 92 carries, 319 yards, 1 TD)
ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Dewayne Cameron, DE, Sr. (47 TT, 11 TFL, 7 sacks, 2 PBU, 2 FR)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Gabe Guild, TB, Sr.; Brendan Flaherty, WR, Sr.; Jake Wieczorek, WR, Sr.; Lucas Nikolaisen, TE, Sr.; Hunter Hudgins, OT, Sr.; Rob Kosharek, OT, Sr.; James Murray, C, Sr.; Ryan Smith, DE, Sr.; Jack Kutschke, DT, Jr.; Kyle Young, LB, Sr.; Nick McBeath, LB, Jr.; Alim Muhammad, CB, Jr.; Steven Martinez, CB, Sr.; Luke Ford, FS, Sr.
OUTLOOK: After posting a winning season for the first time since 2011, the Crusaders hope to be a title contender with their strong senior class. Leading the way is QB Pujals, who has been outstanding for three straight seasons. His favorite target, Flaherty, posted one of the best seasons by a receiver in league history with 106 receptions for 1,082 yards and 12 TDs last year. The offense lost only one starter and TB Guild is capable of gaining more than his 402 rushing yards of a year ago. Holy Cross outscored opponents 351-249 with its much-improved defense, posting two shutouts and allowing only seven points in two other wins. Some key players are gone from the defense, but DE Cameron returns as a senior leader, and DBs Ford and Muhammad (injured for much of last season) joined him on the Patriot preseason team. LB McBeath was lost at midseason after getting off to a great start, so the defense may overcome some of its graduation losses. With the Fordham game moved to Yankee Stadium, the Crusaders will play only four times at home.
Sept. 3, at Morgan State
Sept. 10, at New Hampshire
Sept. 17, at Albany
Sept. 24, Dartmouth
Oct. 1, at Lafayette*
Oct. 8, Bucknell*
Oct. 15, Harvard
Oct. 22, Lehigh*
Oct. 29, at Colgate*
Nov. 5, at Georgetown*
Nov. 12, Fordham* (at Yankee Stadium, New York)
* - Patriot League game
5. BUCKNELL BISON=
LOCATION: Lewisburg, Pennsylvania
STADIUM: Christy Mathewson-Memorial Stadium
COACH: Joe Susan (28-38 in six seasons at Bucknell; 38-38 overall)
LAST SEASON: 4-7 overall, 1-5 Patriot (6th)
STARTERS RETURNING: 16 (8 offense/8 defense)
THREE KEY LOSSES: Matt DelMauro, RB; Jimmy King, DE; Clayton Ewell, S
ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Julie'n Davenport, OL, Sr. (FCS All-America first team)
ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Abdullah Anderson, DT, Jr. (46 TT, 8 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 3 PBU, 1 BK)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: R.J. Nitti, QB, Sr.; Joey DeFloria, RB, Jr.; Will Carter, WR, Sr.; Alan Butler, WR, So.; Andrew Owers, TE/FB, So.; Devlin Brennan, LG, Sr.; Ned Bent, C, Sr.; Cary Hess, RG, Sr.; Doug Whitlock, DE, Jr.; Ben Schumacher, NG, Sr.; Ben Richard, LB, Jr.; Mark Pyles, LB, Jr.; Bret Berg, S, Sr.; Connor Golden, S, Jr.; Bryan Marine, CB, So.; Colin Jonov, CB, Jr.; Nick O'Brien, CB, Sr.; Alex Pechin, PK/P, So.
OUTLOOK: The schedule is quite similar to last season and the Bison hope to make amends after their win total from 2014 (8-3) was cut in half in a disappointing record. Injuries set them back, but it also gave starter's experience to a high number of players. With four players on the Patriot preseason team (DLs Anderson and Schumacher and LBs Pyles and Richard), the defense remains the strength of the team. It might even overcome the graduation of Ewell, the Patriot League's 2015 defensive player of the year. The defense, which returns 12 of its 14 leading tacklers, surrendered the fewest points and yards in the league. On offense, the Bison averaged 11 fewer points per game a year ago than in 2014. Their veteran line features 6-foot-7, 320-pound LT Davenport and four other seniors who have combined for 62 career starts. QB Nitti enters his third season as the starter and will team with All-Patriot WR Carter, although the running back position has to be figured out (perhaps a committee). Pechin was the Patriot first-team punter as a freshman, averaging 42.1 yards per punt.
Sept. 3, at Marist
Sept. 10, at Duquesne
Sept. 17, Cornell
Sept. 24, VMI
Oct. 8, at Holy Cross*
Oct. 15, Colgate*
Oct. 22, Lafayette*
Oct. 29, at Charleston Southern
Nov. 5, at Lehigh*
Nov. 12, at Georgetown*
Nov. 19, Fordham*
* - Patriot League game
6. LAFAYETTE LEOPARDS=
LOCATION: Easton, Pennsylvania
STADIUM: Fisher Stadium
COACH: Frank Tavani (82-99 in 16 seasons at Lafayette)
LAST SEASON: 1-10 overall, 0-6 Patriot (7th)
STARTERS RETURNING: 16 (9 offense/7 defense)
KEY LOSSES: Mark Dodd, LB; Matt Smalley, CB/KR; Jared Roberts, S/PR
ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Drew Reed, QB, Sr. (199-for-308, 2,008 yards, 11 TDs, 10 INTs)
ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Brandon Bryant, LB, Jr. (114 TT, 6.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 2 PBU, 1 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Blake Searfoss, QB, Sr.; DeSean Brown, RB, Jr.; C.J. Amill, RB/WR, So.; Joey Chenoweth, WR, So.; Matt Mrazek, WR, Jr.; Cam Smith, LT, Jr.; Connor Staudle, LG, Sr.; Kevin Zataveski, C, Sr.; Nick Zataveski, RT, Sr.; Matt Rothrock, DT, Sr.; Robin Cepeda, DT, Sr.; Collin Albershardt, DE, Sr.; Beau Bosch, DE, Jr.; Jerry Powe, LB, So.; Draeland James, SS, Sr.; Phillip Parham, CB, Jr.; Jacob Bissell, PK, So.; Ryan Forrester, P, Sr.
OUTLOOK: Last season was quite the drop-off for a team that won the Patriot League title in 2013. The injury-plagued Leopards suffered their worst record since 1964 and went winless in league action for the first time. Tavani, the dean of Patriot coaches, seeks a turnaround, and he has a pretty good solution that too often gets overlooked by football fans - the Leopards return four of the five starters on the offensive line and all four starters on the defensive line. They have to put that muscle to good use, of course, but QB Reed quarterbacked them to the 2013 league title as a freshman. Brown (154 carries, 580 yards, 5 TDs) is a dangerous tailback and Chenoweth, Mrazek and Rocco Palumbo form a solid trio of wide receivers. While the defense is experienced up front, the Leopards lost four of last season's top five tacklers, although they return the right one in Bryant, who led the team. Their 4-2-5 defense allowed 28 touchdowns through the air while intercepting only five passes. The Oct. 15 visit to Army West Point is Lafayette's first game against an FBS opponent since 1997, when the Leopards fell just short 38-36 against the Cadets.
Sept. 2, at Central Connecticut State
Sept. 10, Delaware
Sept. 17, at Princeton
Sept. 24, Villanova
Oct. 1, Holy Cross*
Oct. 8, at Fordham*
Oct. 15, at Army West Point
Oct. 22, at Bucknell*
Oct. 29, Georgetown*
Nov. 12, at Colgate*
Nov. 19, Lehigh*
* - Patriot League game
7. GEORGETOWN HOYAS=
LOCATION: Washington, D.C.
STADIUM: Multi-Sport Field
COACH: Rob Sgarlata (7-15 in two seasons at Georgetown)
LAST SEASON: 4-7 overall, 2-4 Patriot (5th)
STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (7 offense/6 defense)
THREE KEY LOSSES: Kyle Nolan, QB; Jo'el Kimpela, RB; Matt Satchell, LB
ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Justin Hill, WR, Sr. (46 receptions, 636 yards, 6 TDs)
ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Daniel Yankovich, LB, Jr. (88 TT, 5 TFL, 2 sacks, 2 QBH)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Tim Barnes, QB, Sr.; Isaac Ellsworth, RB/KR, Jr.; Matt Buckman, TE, Sr.; Nick James, OL, Jr.; Michael McFarlane, OL, Jr.; Matt Houpert, OL Jr.; Hunter Kiselick, DL, Grad; Phil Novacki, DL, Sr.; Brennen Sawicki, DL, So.; Leo Loughrey, LB, Sr.; David Akere, S, Jr.; Jethro Francois, S, So.; Jelani Williamson, CB, Jr.; Henry Darmstadter, PK, Sr.
OUTLOOK: In a veteran-filled league this season, Georgetown has the fewest returning starters on top of being the only program which doesn't offer scholarships. The Hoyas were competitive last season, losing three league games by seven points or less, and they built some younger depth. QB Barnes (10-for-22, 79 yards) has waited for his turn behind Nolan and will run the offense as a senior. His go-to targets are WR Hill and TE Buckman (32 receptions, 251 yards, 4 TDs), the latter whom made the Patriot League preseason team. The defense must retool, but DT Sawicki and S Francis are sophomores to build around and LB Yankovich, the Hoyas' second-leading tackler last year, has two seasons of eligibility remaining. Aside from a trip to Harvard, the non-conference schedule is manageable.
Sept. 3, Davidson
Sept. 10, at Marist
Sept. 24, Columbia
Sept. 30, at Harvard
Oct. 8, Princeton
Oct. 15, Lehigh*
Oct. 22, at Fordham*
Oct. 29, at Lafayette*
Nov. 5, Holy Cross*
Nov. 12, Bucknell*
Nov. 19, at Colgate*
* - Patriot League game