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December 19. 2012 9:40PM

Allen Lessels' UNH Notebook: 2013 UNH football schedule loaded with tough opponents

The University of New Hampshire football team's schedule for 2013, jam-packed with playoff teams and those knocking on the door of the tournament, shapes up as quite a test.

"It's a very, very challenging schedule," said coach Sean McDonnell on Wednesday after the school announced the lineup of games. "I like it, but it's going to be a real challenge for our program."

The Wildcats open the season on Sept. 7 at Central Michigan. The Chippewas play in the Mid-American Conference and are a Football Bowl Subdivision team, which is a step above UNH's Football Championship Subdivision level.

UNH finished 8-4 overall and earned a share of the Colonial Athletic Association championship with a 6-2 league mark in the just-completed season.

Central Michigan is 6-6 this season and plays Western Kentucky in the Little Caesar's Bowl in Detroit on Dec. 26.

Including Central Michigan, four of next year's opponents played in the post-season this year.

Another five made strong cases to be included in the FCS playoffs and to varying degrees were upset that they were not invited to what was a 20-team tournament this year. Next season, the FCS tournament field is being expanded to 24 teams.

UNH follows the trip to Central Michigan with a home game against Colgate on Sept. 14 and a game at Lehigh on Sept. 28 to wrap up the nonconference piece of the schedule.

"I think the nonleague schedule speaks for itself," McDonnell said. "We're playing a great Central Michigan team that is going to a bowl this year and Colgate and Lehigh, the top two teams in the Patriot League. Those games will be tough and then you go into the CAA where you play some very, very good teams."

The Wildcats play their CAA opener at Towson on Oct. 5, face Rhode Island at home on Oct. 12 and Villanova at home on Oct. 19 and are at Stony Brook to close out October on the 26th.

They have James Madison at home on Nov. 9, are at Albany on Nov. 16 and close out the regular season at home against Maine on Nov. 23.

The Wildcats will not play two CAA teams, Delaware and Richmond.

UNH made its ninth straight appearance in the FCS tournament, which is the longest such streak in the nation, and was ousted in a second-round game at Wofford, 23-7, earlier this month.

Stony Brook and Albany will both be playing their first seasons in the CAA next fall.

Colgate (8-4), Villanova (8-4) and Stony Brook (10-3) all joined UNH in the FCS playoffs this season.

Colgate, the Patriot League champ, lost to Wagner, 31-20, in the first round and Villanova lost to Stony Brook, 20-11, also in the first round. Stony Brook lost at Montana State, 16-10, in the second round.

Lehigh (10-1), Towson (7-4), Albany (9-2), Richmond (8-3) and James Madison (7-4) all made runs at getting into the tournament.

Lehigh won its first nine games and its only loss was a 35-24 decision to Colgate.

Towson thought it deserved a spot in part based on its 64-35 dismantling of UNH on Nov. 17, the day before the tournament pairings were announced.

The Wildcats are coming full circle with the game at Central Michigan. They played the Chippewas on Sept. 6, 2003 in only their second "money game." They had played their first at Kent State the year before and lost, 34-7. UNH generally receives a payment in the neighborhood of $300,000 to take on the FBS teams it plays.

UNH gave Central Michigan all it wanted in 2003. The Wildcats scored with less than two minutes to play on a Mike Granieri to David Bailey pass that covered 48 yards. UNH recovered an onside kick, but its drive ended at the Central Michigan 24-yard line.

"That was Granieri and all those guys," McDonnell said. "Sean Lynch (a freshman from Salem) scored a touchdown just before the half. We did some good things. Our kids got a sense we had a pretty good team."

The Wildcats finished 5-7 that year, but won three of their last four games.

The next year, redshirt freshman Ricky Santos replaced an injured Granieri in the first game at Delaware and UNH won that game and then went to Rutgers for another FBS game and pulled off a 35-24 upset.

The Rutgers game started a string of five straight wins over FBS teams and that season started the string of nine straight playoff appearances.

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Senior linebacker Matt Evans collected more honors on Wednesday when he was named a Walter Camp All American for the third consecutive season.

Evans, who has made several other All American teams this year and last year won the Buck Buchanan Award as the top defensive player in FCS, led the CAA with 126 tackles. He became UNH's all-time leading tackler late in the year and finished with 460 tackles in his career.

Santos (2005-07) and wide receiver David Ball (2004-06) were also three-time Walter Camp All Americans.

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Allen Lessels covers college sports for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. He may be reached at alessels@unionleader.com.


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