(Sports Network) - Pop open the hood on the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference preseason football poll and the shiny engine that is defending champion Bethune-Cookman can make you reach for the sun-glasses.
Take a closer look, though, and you realize there's plenty of sparkling parts that comprise what could be a big season for MEAC football.
Plenty that threaten Bethune's title reign, too.
The Wildcats were the clear favorite at Friday's media day in Norfolk, Va., gaining 16 of the 21 first-place votes in the preseason poll, but an 11-team, one-division set-up makes for a grind each season, and the rise of North Carolina Central and North Carolina A&T last season has heightened that scenario.
South Carolina State, which had been the recent MEAC power until coach Brian Jenkins started lifting Bethune-Cookman again in 2010, slid back to the pack last season, but voters say the Bulldogs will be back, picking them second. A&T and Central were right behind as the third and fourth choices, respectively.
It's an ever-changing mix in the MEAC, with Florida A&M, Howard, Delaware State and 2011 champion Norfolk State also among the teams positioned to be in the title mix. Not a lot can separate first place from, say, seventh place.
"We've got some programs now that have really tried to step up how they go about handling their business," South Carolina State coach Buddy Pough said.
"Of course, Bethune has been successful the last couple years. Florida A&M has made a (coaching) change and they're trying to make some improvements. And the (North Carolina) A&Ts and the (North Carolina) Centrals of the world, the Delaware States, the guys who had success last year, are all making vast improvements in the overall process, so, yeah, it's tougher to lead this league than it's ever been."
The MEAC champion likely has an improved chance of ending the conference's playoff win drought which dates to 1999. An expanded field from 20 to 24 teams should give the MEAC winner an easier first-round opportunity than in recent seasons.
Bethune-Cookman was particularly disappointed it didn't beat Coastal Carolina from the Big South in last year's playoff matchup in Daytona Beach, Fla.
Bethune finished 8-0 in conference play for the first time last year and qualified for the playoffs for the second time in Jenkins' first three seasons. With seven starters returning on each side of the ball, including MEAC preseason co-offensive player of the year Isidore Jackson at running back and preseason defensive player of the year Jarkevis Fields at linebacker, the Wildcats should be confident about continued success.
The schedule, however, could catch up to Bethune as it plays five of its first six games on the road, including trips to back-to-back FBS opponents (FIU and Florida State) and conference opponents Delaware State and Howard. The Wildcats' visit to North Carolina Central on Nov. 2 looms as one of the biggest on the MEAC schedule.
"The preseason polls are good for conversation," Delaware State third-year coach Kermit Blount reminds, "but what happens on the field is all that matters."
MEAC FOOTBALL PRESEASON POLL
Voted on by Head Coaches and Sports Information Directors
1. Bethune-Cookman (16 first-place votes), 480 points
2. South Carolina State (2), 365
3. North Carolina A&T, 302
4. North Carolina Central, 260
5. Florida A&M, 250
6. Howard, 227
7. Norfolk State (1), 222
8. Delaware State, 201
9. Hampton (1), 196
10. Morgan State, 113
11. Savannah State (1) 52
PRESEASON ALL-MEAC TEAM
Co-Offensive Players of the Year - Damien Fleming, QB, Florida A&M, and Isidore Jackson, RB, Bethune-Cookman
Defensive Player of the Year - Jarkevis Fields, LB, Bethune-Cookman
QB- Damien Fleming, Jr., Florida A&M
RB- Isidore Jackson, Sr., Bethune-Cookman
RB- Malcolm Williams, Jr., Delaware State
RB- James Owens, Rr-Sr., Florida A&M
WR- Lenworth Lennon, R-Jr., Florida A&M
WR- Simon Hewyard, Sr., Savannah State
TE- Joseph Hawkins, R-Sr., Norfolk State
C- Brandon Cunningham, Sr., Delaware State
OL- Alex Monroe, Sr., Bethune-Cookman
OL- Kevin House, R-Jr., Florida A&M
OL- Zerrie Patterson, So., Florida A&M
OL- Joshua Matthews, Sr., Howard
DL- LeBrandon Richardson, Jr., Bethune-Cookman
DL- Damon Gresham Chisholm, So., Howard
DL- Rodney Gunter, Jr., Delaware State
DL- Javon Hargrave, So., South Carolina State
LB- Jarkevis Fields, Sr., Bethune-Cookman
LB- Ernest Adjei, Sr., Delaware State
LB- Lyndell Trail, R-Jr., Norfolk State
DB- Nick Addison, Jr., Bethune-Cookman
DB- Julien David, Sr., Howard
DB- D'Vonte Graham, Sr., North Carolina A&T
DB- Terrick Colston, So., Delaware State
First-Team Special Teams
P- Nick Belcher, R-Sr., South Carolina State
PK- Chase Varnadore, R-So., Florida A&M
RS- D'Vonte Graham, Sr., North Carolina A&T