BRIDGEPORT - Rising from the ashes of the West Virginia Conference, the Mountain East Conference makes its debut this fall as the newest NCAA Division II multi-sport league in the country.
There's still a strong Mountain State flavor as eight of the league's 11 football-playing schools - Wheeling Jesuit doesn't have football - came over from the WVIAC. They were joined by a pair of Ohio schools, Urbana and Notre Dame, with Virginia-Wise rounding out the list.
There's plenty of excitement surrounding the new league. The MEC's first official function - Football Media Day - drew an overflow crowd of regional media to the Bridgeport Conference Center earlier this month.
While there was some nostalgia about disbanding the WVC, most coaches felt that going from eight teams in the WVIAC to 11 teams in the MEC will have a positive effect on their programs.
"It will help our strength of schedule and give us a chance to send multiple teams to the playoffs," West Liberty coach Roger Waialae said. "I think we (the WVIAC) had to be the only league in the country where teams with three and four losses from other conferences were getting playoff bids over teams from our league with just two losses."
Last year was a case in point as WVIAC champion Shepherd barely squeezed into the sixth and last Super Region One playoff spot, leaving a 9-2 Charleston squad all dressed up with no place to go.
With a veteran squad returning, Shepherd looks to have the inside track to the inaugural MEC title but UC, Glenville State and West Liberty will also try to muscle their way into the postseason picture.
Here's a list of team capsules with record projections in parentheses:
With the largest senior class on hand in Monte Cater's quarter-century at the helm, it's hard to pick against the Rams and their veteran coach. QB Bobby Cooper is gone but Cater has always relied on a stingy defense and ball-control offense to keep Shepherd near the top of the heap. That won't change as the entire offensive line returns to clear the way for talented RBs Allen Cross and Jihad Rasheed. A veteran Rams defense that has allowed fewer rushing yards than any team in the nation the past two seasons is led by All-America candidates DE Howard Jones and CB/KR Keon Robinson.
The Golden Eagles went 9-2 a season ago with the two losses coming by a combined total of 10 points, but still found themselves on the outside looking in when playoff berths were distributed. Both QBs, Maurice Leak and John Knox, are back but All-Region RB Jordan Roberts signed with the Kansas City Chiefs. Eight returning starters on a defense that gave up less than 16 points a game should give the offense time to jell. P/PK Puma Nuredini drilled 13 field goals and averaged more than 40 yards a punt last fall.
Glenville State (7-4)
Coach Dave Hutchison's Pioneers may have the horses to make a run at the first MEC title. Glenville was unbeaten at home last season and gets both Shepherd and Charleston on the Morris Field turf this fall. RB Rahman Lee was the top freshman runner in the nation a year ago with 1,357 yards while All-America candidate center Jon Rasnick leads a huge offensive line. LB James Johnson also returns after leading the team with 92 tackles in 2012.
West Liberty (7-4)
The Hilltoppers hope to crash the MEC party with eight starters back from the 2012 defense that led the nation with six interception returns TDs. West Liberty is also the only MEC team that doesn't play Shepherd this year. All-America DB Marco Ricchetti from Martins Ferry is redshirting this year but that hole will be filled by the return of All-WVIAC DB, and Wheeling Park alum, Alec Wood from injury. Soph QB Dylan Lagarde now has a year's experience under his belt and the top two running backs, Isiah Moody and Kenjay Trueblood, also return. There are plenty of new faces on the receiving corps and their development could hold the key to the season.
Third-year coach Garin Justice faces a bit of a rebuilding task this fall as the Mountain Lions return only 10 starters from last year's 7-4 team. There's still plenty of talent in Athens, especially on the defensive side where LB Jake Lilly and CB Riyadh Richardson rank among the region's best at their positions. RB Calvinaugh Jones ran for 749 yards as a freshman last fall and is one of the league's top returning rushers.
Fairmont State (5-5)
Jason Woodman takes over a Falcons team that struggled to a 4-6 record but the first-year coach has some nice pieces to work with. Two-time All-WVIAC RB Daniel Monroe is closing in on the 2,000-yard career mark while LB Garrett Davis led the nation with 7.5 solo tackles a game last fall. Preseason All-America OT Chris Barfield is drawing NFL attention. With only four road games, FSU has a chance to get back to .500.
Notre Dame (5-6)
The Falcons look to be the best of the three non-WVIAC alums this season. NDC went 3-8 against a killer GLIAC schedule but that included a 59-42, non-conference rout of PSAC West champ Mercyhurst. Eight starters return from a high-powered offense. RB Pedro Powell ran for 1,460 yards and 11 TDs while QB Ray Russ passed for 2,265 yards and 23 scores. The top two receivers - Colton Wallace (51 catches, 633 yards, 14 TDs) and Mikhail Morgan (54-639-2) - also return. This season also marks the opening of Notre Dame's on-campus football stadium.
The Blue Knights may face a more difficult transition than many expect coming off a deceiving 7-4 season. Urbana's seven victims had a combined record of 18-58 and one of the losses came at the hands of a 3-8 W.Va. Wesleyan team. Don't sell the Blue Knights too short, however. QB D.J. Mendenhall is a three-year starter who has thrown for more than 6,700 yards and added 1,600 more on the ground. WR Joe Webb, a 1,000-yard receiver, also returns.
W.Va. State (4-7)
Don't expect immediate miracles from first-year coach Jon Anderson as he takes over a program that was 4-28 in WVIAC play the past four seasons. Nevertheless, his pedigree - defensive coordinator for two NAIA national championship teams at Sioux Falls (S.D.) and a solid recruiting class may be just what the Yellowjackets need to turn things around. DE Wenly Beliard (13 tackles-for-loss) and DB Dominique Mathews are State's top returning players.
With the Highland Cavaliers still transitioning from NAIA to NCAA Division II, they'll have a hard time surpassing last season's 3-8 mark against a much more challenging schedule. The western Virginia squad does return 15 starters, including nine on offense, so there's a nice veteran presence in the locker room for coach Dewey Lusk. Keep an eye on speedy WR Terrance Younger, who averaged 21.5 yards per catch in 2012.
W.Va. Wesleyan (1-9)
Former WVU special teams ace George Shehl has been working overtime trying to restock the Bobcats roster after the Jonas Jackson era flamed out last fall. Fewer than 40 players showed up for spring drills so Shehl and his staff were expected to bring in more than 50 new faces for the start of preseason drills. A bright spot for the Bobcats is the return of WR/PR Lavaughn Hughes, who led the nation with 453 punt return yards and three TDs in 2012.