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Know Your 2010 Opponents: New Hampshire

(Photo Credit: Deb Cram/Seacoast Online)

You can probably forgive New Hampshire fans for being a little bit obsessed with polls.

After all, the announcement this week that they were going to be starting the year ranked in the Sports Network poll at No. 10 was nothing unusual for them.

Since breaking into the Top 25 on the 13th of September of 2004 - after their shock 35-24 win over Rutgers, behind the efforts of freshman QB Ricky Santos - they never left the polls.

Think about that a second. To date, that's 2,165 days as a top team in FCS. That also off the heels of a year where the Wildcats never dropped below 11th in the country, and rose to as high as 4th.  That's what Lehigh is going to be up against when they travel to Durham, New Hampshire this fall. (more)

What's even more remarkable about New Hampshire's justified respect in the polls this year is that they are there with three of their big stars from last year - TE Scott Sicko, LB Sean Ware and RB Chad Kackert - spending their August in NFL camps.  They also don't boast a single finalist for the Walter Payton or Buck Buchanan awards this year.  So what does New Hampshire do to replace them?

"Like we do every year, we reload," said senior QB R.J. Toman to Seacoast Online. "It's not a sense of rebuilding anything; we reload because we have guys that are just as willing and able to step in."

The Wildcats are hoping to reload on offense with some players that got a lot of playing time last year, notably junior RB Sean Jellison who stepped in and did a whale of a job for the Wildcats when Kackert went down with injury.

But it's the Wildcat defense that really stands up and demands your respect.

Forget the fact that they don't have any Buck Buchanan candidates - yet.  Senior DB Dino Vasso (5 interceptions) and senior FS Hugo Souza (77 tackles, 3 INTs) have the capability to be there by year's end.  With Souza and Vasso patrolling the secondary, New Hampshire could have one of the best secondaries in all of FCS.

Add to that a nighmarish front seven starring returning junior DE Brian McNally (4 sacks), senior DT Steve Young (39 tackles, 2 sacks) and senior LB Devon Jackson (98 tackles including 9 tackles for loss), it's no wonder the Wildcats - who only allowed on average a tiny bit more than 21 points per game in 2009 - are ranked so highly.

"I think we have the most depth at every single position than we've had since I've been here," said Souza. "We'll do well."

In this defense, where Souza seems to be the calm co-captain, it's McNally who seems to be the live wire - which is a good thing when you're talking about defensive linemen.  At UNH's media day, one of the athletic department's "Flipumentary" hosts said that everyone "seems to be scared" of McNally ;as they light-heartedly debated sandwiches.

"We want to bring a championship to New Hampshire," McNally told Seacoast Online.  "I've been here two years and lost in the (Division I) quarterfinals both years. You think, 'All right, we've only got two more years to go. We've got to hurry up and get this thing out of the way.'"

Like Lehigh, UNH is thinking about their brutal schedule as well.  They see Pitt, who they know is a step up from Rutgers circa-2004, Army and Marshall, and had the potential to be a rough afternoon.  They've seen their 2010 schedule go from having Hofstra and Northeastern (who discontinued football late last year) to including instead fellow Top 25 denizens William & Mary and James Madison.  Add local CAA rival UMass and the defending national champions Villanova - and that's one brutal schedule.

"It's going to be a good challenge for us," Vasso, calmly told Seacoast Online, "but no different than usual. We have the same outlook and the same expectations."

It's hard not to look at New Hampshire's camps, media day and press reports and see a team that is completely and utterly relaxed - if not a little bit cocky.  But then again, they've earned that right.  The team has beaten FBS opponents and won FCS playoff games the last two years.  Head coach Sean McDonnell isn't in any danger of being canned - he's the most successful current FCS head football coach over the last five years.

New Hampshire is a team that will be bringing one of the best defenses in the country, a solid offense that doesn't make many mistakes, and one of the strongest FCS reputations over the last five years.  It's going to be a huge challenge for Lehigh.


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