It would make sense if the University of Maine football team went into Friday’s 6 p.m. season opener against visiting Sacred Heart University a little overconfident.
The Black Bears return 15 of 22 starters off a team that not only won the Colonial Athletic Association championship, but it also reached the Football Championship Subdivision national semifinals for the first time in program history.
UMaine is ranked seventh in the country.
It is the first meeting between the two programs.
UMaine went 5-0 last season on Morse Field at Alfond Stadium, including a 55-27 victory over No. 8 Jacksonville State in the first round of the FCS playoffs.
UMaine junior quarterback Chris Ferguson said overconfidence has not been an issue.
“We still have a chip on our shoulders. We still have that underdog mentality,” Ferguson said. “We didn’t pay attention to the preseason stuff [polls] last year, and we didn’t pay attention to it this year.”
Sacred Heart is a quality program that shared the Northeast Conference championship with Duquesne last year. Duquesne beat Sacred Heart 28-24 and earned the NEC’s automatic berth to the FCS playoffs.
“We had a good year last year (7-4), but Maine had a better year,” said eighth-year Sacred Heart head coach Mark Nofri.
The Pioneers, who have won their past three games against opponents ranked in the top 25, have never played a team ranked as high as No. 7.
Sacred Heart has fewer than 40 scholarship equivalencies, while UMaine has 63, the maximum allowed for FCS programs.
“We never overlook any opponent,” said UMaine nose tackle Chuck Mitchell, one of nine senior starters. “This will be my last home opener. It’s very exciting.”
UMaine was picked to finish third in the CAA preseason coaches poll while Sacred Heart was voted second behind Duquesne in the NEC poll.
The Pioneers won NEC titles in 2013 and 2014 before sharing last year’s championship.
The most intriguing matchup is UMaine’s rush defense, No. 1 among 124 FCS schools last year in rushing defense (79.2 yards per game) against a Sacred Heart running game that led the NEC with 241 yards per game and ranked 15th in the FCS.
UMaine has eight starters back on defense, and the Pioneers return both running backs in graduate student Jordan Meachum (1,400 yards rushing, 127.3 ypg) and sophomore Julius Chestnut (713 yds., 64.8 ypg).
Each averaged a whopping 6.2 yards per carry.
UMaine’s defense features three preseason All-Americans in end Kayon Whitaker, linebacker Deshawn Stevens and cornerback Manny Patterson.
“I know Maine is outstanding on defense,” said Nofri, who has replaced two offensive linemen, leading receiver Andrew O’Neill and quarterback Kevin Duke.
The quarterback candidates include graduate student Logan Marchi, who played in 18 Football Bowl Subdivision games for Temple and East Tennessee State. He threw for 245 yards and two touchdowns against Notre Dame when he was at Temple.
The others are senior Grant Lowary and redshirt freshman Marquez McCray.
“They’re a big physical team. They’re big up front on offense,” Nofri said of UMaine. “We’ll have our work cut out for us.”
The Pioneers return nine starters on a defense that ranked fifth in the FCS in passing defense (148.8 ypg).
Senior end Chris Agyemang (55 tackles, 15.5 tackles for a loss in 2018), an All-NEC preseason pick, headlines the defense along with linebacker Mike Wilen (79 tackles).
UMaine’s offense features Ferguson, who completed 56.3 percent of his passes for 2,372 yards and 22 touchdowns last year, along with senior receivers Earnest Edwards (53 catches, 839 yards) and Jaquan Blair (43-572), and running backs Joe Fitzpatrick (120 carries, 476 yds.) and transfer Emmanuel Reed (1,244 career yards at the University of Buffalo).