We meet again.
Returning last year's trip to Kessler Field in West Long Branch, New Jersey, the Monmouth Hawks swoop into Bethlehem to try to get their first-ever win against Lehigh.
In 2005, when I wrote my preview of that game, I had to really struggle to find the words to talk about a team I hardly knew. But Monmouth is no longer "Monmouth Hawks: International Team of Mystery" to Lehigh fans. They have NFL-caliber athletes on the squad; they can put points on the board; and they won't be a walk in the park.
As Lehigh fans, we'd hope we'd see a similar Monmouth team to the one in 2005 that visited Bethlehem - a nice tune-up to start the year and a way to break in new players
But for some reason, since that time when Lehigh has hosted NEC teams at home, Lehigh has struggled mightily.
In head coach Andy Coen's first game as a collegiate head coach, a rainstorm and a loss marred the event, with a 17-16 loss to Albany, and Central Connecticut State also spoiled the 2009 season opener, 28-21.
Reading those recaps again, recurring themes appear. "Working out the kinks". "Sloppy play." "Turnovers killed us." "Offense couldn't get anything going."
Even after Lehigh's season-opening win over Monmouth last year, the Hawks were plenty dangerous the rest of the way.
They would upend Villanova just a week after their loss to Lehigh, upsetting Villanova 20-9.
The teams of the NEC are no opening-day cupcakes. Full athletic scholarships - even just a limited number of them - has made a major difference in the competitiveness of the entire league.
Similarly, this Lehigh squad has plenty of questions to answer going into this weekend's game.
Will senior QB Mike Colvin be able to do the same thing against Monmouth that QB Chris Lum was able to accomplish? It may not be fair to judge Mike against Lum's stat line from that game - 22-of-35 for 346 yards and 4 TDs - but that's probably what's going to happen. Crucial will be if Colvin can keep a singular stat - interceptions - as close to 0 as possible.
Will the Monmouth offense, which returns almost all of its starters, have its way with the Lehigh defense? As good as some of Lehigh's starters are, like senior NG Sajjad Chagani, senior LB Billy Boyko and senior CB Bryan Andrews, there are an awful lot of defensive Mountain Hawks that will be getting into their first game action.
This is, of course, the challenge for Lehigh in 2012, along with their national ranking.
All the teams on their schedule dream of knocking off a top team in FCS, and with Lehigh at No. 11/16 in the nation, every game is their Super Bowl. You know Monmouth has been looking at this game since December, knowing they'll have a chance to knock off a great team.
They'll get Monmouth's best shot. They'll get the trick plays. They'll get the extra plays in the playbook that don't come out against the D-II teams.
It's a challenge, I'm sure, that all the Lehigh players, fans, and members of the athletic department, can't wait for any longer.
Lehigh's game notes for the Monmouth game are out, but you can enjoy my extremely detailed preview of the offense and defense from my last two blog postings.
This just in: Hurricane Issac will be nowhere near the Lehigh Valley. With a sunny day and a high of 88, bring some extra bottled water to the game as you enjoy Murray Goodman Stadium.
A Word on Monmouth
The 2011 version of the Monmouth Hawks could have had one of the stranger seasons statistically in all of football.
Start with their won/loss record.
In six home games at Kessler Field in West Long Branch, NJ, the Hawks went 0-6, including a fairly comprehensive 49-24 defeat to Lehigh in the season opener.
But on the road, Monmouth went 5-0, including wins over Villanova, Central Connecticut State, and Bryant.
The Monmouth Hawks' football program is probably best known for the NFL star that came from their ranks, Dallas Cowboy WR Miles Austin, who has made two consecutive Pro Bowls after signing as an undrafted free agent in 2006.
(In his college career, he actually traveled to Murray Goodman in the 2006 meeting between Lehigh and Monmouth. He caught 7 passes for 126 yards and a 66 yard touchdown strike in a 54-26 Mountain Hawk victory.)
From last season, SS Jose Gumbs is the latest Hawk to get onto an NFL roster - as a rookie he made the final cut for the New Orleans Saints.
The Hawks have only known one football coach - Kevin Callahan, who has been the head kahuna since the programs' inception in 1993. He's led Monmouth to five NEC titles in the last twenty years, but hasn't captured an NEC title since 2004.
He actually served under the tutelage of two other legendary coaches in the NEC: Albany's Bob Ford and Wagner's Walt Hameline, two of the longest-tenured coaches anywhere in the Division I ranks.
In 2012, Monmouth has been picked by many publications, like, oh, the College Sports Journal, to finish sixth in the NEC. But it would be foolish to think "sixth" and immediately think "noncontender".
A survey of coaches in the media teleconference made it clear that any school can take the league this year, including Monmouth, returning 18 starters, or even 7th-placed Wagner, who return even more.
Of course, if Monmouth knocks off No. 11/16 Lehigh from their perch at home, it could be a singular win that vaults them into the national scene.
LFN's Drink of the Week
It was strange; last year, after reading this article from Currents Magazine I decided to make the "Drink of the Week" the simple Gin and Tonic. And after seeing Lehigh drub Monmouth 49-24 last year, it was clear I made the right choice.
One of the basic tenets of the "Drink of the Week" is that: if something worked last year, don't do anything foolish to turn the luck against Lehigh. So once again, please enjoy the classic Gin and Tonic this weekend as your "Drink of the Week".
Sensible drinking can be a part of a pleasant tailgating experience, but only if you drink responsibly and for God's sakes don't get behind the wheel of a car when having consumed too much alcohol.