WVSU football john pennington (copy)

West Virginia State University coach John Pennington

The Mountain East Conference’s football coaches feel both West Virginia State and the University of Charleston have a decent shot at a conference title this season. Actually, they think the Yellow Jackets have their best shot at a crown since the conference began.

MEC coaches picked WVSU to finish third and UC to finish fourth in the conference’s preseason media poll, announced Tuesday before the Mountain East’s football media day. It is the highest preseason perch for West Virginia State in MEC history.

There was no change at the top from last year. Notre Dame College — last year’s conference champ and a Division II national semifinalist — earned 10 of the 11 first-place votes to sit at No. 1 in the preseason poll. Fairmont State grabbed the other first-place vote and is in second.

The Yellow Jackets finished at 6-5 last season, marking the first time since the 2007 and 2008 seasons that State finished consecutive seasons over .500. Strong-armed quarterback Austin Hensley returns after being lost in the season opener to injury. He threw for 260 yards and two touchdowns in that first game before getting hurt.

Eight starters return to the team, but WVSU will rely on a blend of veterans and newcomers this season.

State coach John Pennington appreciated the optimism the conference’s coaches had with his team, but knows that the Yellow Jackets will need more than optimism to contend.

“Overall, it’s awesome to have these expectations,” Pennington said to reporters in Bridgeport. “It took years to teach our players in our program how to win. It starts with believing how to win, and it’s great that our guys expect to win and people outside our program expect us to win. But expectations don’t win football games.”

The Golden Eagles also finished 6-5 last year and have eight offensive starters returning, but quarterback Mason Olszewski will not be one of them. UC must fill some major holes on defense, including two players currently in NFL training camps. Kahzin Daniels signed with Tampa Bay as a rookie free agent outside linebacker. The Atlanta Falcons took defensive lineman John Cominsky in the fourth round of the 2019 NFL draft, the first player from UC or Morris Harvey drafted since 1943.

“We’re a little unique this year,” UC coach Pat Kirkland said, “probably since I’ve been at the University of Charleston to have this much turnover personnel-wise. A lot of new faces. Off a defense that finished first in the conference and eighth in the country in total defense, we lost nine starters.”

The newest members of the Mountain East Conference’s football family are excited to begin their maiden voyages this fall. Those voyages just aren’t predicted to be successful ones.

Frostburg State and Wheeling were picked by coaches Tuesday to finish ninth and 11th, respectively, in the 11-team Mountain East. The pair replace Shepherd, which left for the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference, and UVa-Wise, which departed for the South Atlantic Conference.

After Notre Dame, Fairmont State, WVSU and UC, Urbana was picked to finish fifth, West Liberty sixth, Glenville State seventh, Concord eighth, Frostburg ninth, West Virginia Wesleyan 10th and Wheeling 11th.

The MEC season begins Thursday, Sept. 5 when Charleston hosts Fairmont State, Frostburg State hosts West Virginia State and Glenville State hosts Alderson Broaddus.

Contact Derek Redd at 304-348-1712 or derek.redd@wvgazettemail.com. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.