The Owls, not long removed from irrelevance, have won 26 games the last three seasons. Yet they never made it to the MAC title game. Actually, they never beat a MAC team that finished with a winning record. Now they have to replace more than half of their starters from a team that went 9-4 and won a bowl game, convincingly over Wyoming, for the first time since 1979.
They've been picked to finish eighth in an eight-team neighborhood, for whatever media polls are worth. Then again, they aren't supposed to compete for a title, at least not yet. This is about taking more steps. The MAC was a necessary lifeline that kept things going until something better came along. It took a while, but North Broad Street has been given another chance at being bigger time. And the program is much better positioned to make the most of that. It just figures to take time. Still, the Owls should be able to at least play with some of their new rivals from the jump. They beat Connecticut at home in 2010, and the Huskies wound up in a BCS bowl. So who knows?
If nothing else, the Owls would seem to have a lot more to shoot for.
"Nobody likes being picked last," said offensive lineman Martin Wallace, "but that drives us to see where we can go. We understand we haven't made a claim yet at all in the Big East.
"Like our coach constantly talks about, these big-star recruits that always come in are predicted to [do well]. He says, 'You know what? If they project you to be whatever, surprise them. Just do your job.'
"The ratings in the preseason don't mean that much. So we take that attitude, with a little chip on our shoulders, of course. We see where we have to be and we want to go, and the preseason ranking is just kind of like that's where they put us."
And as always, it's only a beginning point. Nothing more, or less. Only opinions. You make your own noise. The stakes have simply gone way up.
"In order to encompass the higher echelon of opponent that we'll face," Wallace went on, "we have to treat them like we would prepare for Penn State every week. I think that's the easiest way to put it."
In other words, there doesn't figure to be so many gimmes any longer. The Owls certainly did a good job with those in 2011. It was the toss-up games that kept giving them trouble.
Yes, they must replace running back Bernard Pierce, who's now a Baltimore Raven. But late last year, they found a quarterback Addazio is quite comfortable with, in junior Chris Coyer. They need to find some help in certain areas, particularly the interior lines. But Addazio will find answers. How many, and how quickly, are the murky variables.
"In the last 2 years we've had a first-round [NFL draft] pick, a second-round pick, a third-round pick, a fourth-round pick, a fifth-round pick and 13 free agents," Addazio noted. "That's a lot of football players. But that's also a statement in terms of where our football program is.
"You have to get new guys ready to play. There's never perfect timing for anything in this life as far as I'm concerned. I think you have to make your place. We have to stay healthy, do it week in and week out."
There's never been a better time to be an Owl. A fresh era is upon them. Nothing left to do except go for it.
Nate Smith, a freshman free safety, is eligible to play after being approved by the NCAA Clearinghouse, a source said. Smith, the brother of former Eagles tight end L.J. Smith, played his first three seasons of high school ball at George Washington and his senior year at Archbishop Wood.
Contact Mike Kern at email@example.com