ALBANY — Heading into the 2016 season, Colonial Athletic Association coaches picked the University at Albany to finish second to last in the conference.
The Great Danes exceeded those expectations, as UAlbany finished 7-4 overall and just missed out on grabbing a spot in the FCS postseason tournament field. Based off that solid showing in 2016, respect was shown to the UAlbany program Tuesday when athlonsports.com released its preseason national poll and ranked the Great Danes at No. 20. That ranking pegged UAlbany as the fifth-best team in the CAA.
North Dakota State was ranked first, while reigning champion James Madison was ranked second.
UAlbany was not ranked in a preseason poll during head coach Greg Gattuso’s first three seasons at the helm, and the nationally-recognized coaches and media polls still do not come out for approximately two months. Tuesday’s ranking, though, could serve as a harbinger of the Great Danes making a preseason appearance in those national polls this summer. A year ago, UAlbany earned its highest-ever national ranking at No. 16 in the STATS FCS Top 25 poll after its 4-0 start.
Expectations for the Great Danes in 2017 are largely built around the team’s defense. UAlbany returns stars within its defensive line (senior Malachi Hoskins) and secondary (junior Mason Gray), added Penn State transfer Antoine White to its depth at linemen, and returns several other key contributors from one of the CAA’s top defenses from a year ago.
“We think we have the potential to be one of the best defenses in the conference,” defensive lineman Brian Dolce said after the Great Danes’ spring game back in April.
That spring game showed the Great Danes’ weaknesses on offense at both the quarterback and linemen positions. Junior running back Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks, though, did not play in that spring game. He is expected to be ready for UAlbany’s Sept. 2 season-opening game at Old Dominion after rehabilitating a torn ACL.
A year ago, Ibitokun-Hanks rushed for 1,388 yards and 16 touchdowns, totals that each ranked seventh in the country.
“He made us a pretty good football team,” Gattuso said of Ibitokun-Hanks during UAlbany’s first spring practice earlier this year.
This fall’s season will be Gattuso’s fourth leading the Great Danes. Through his first three seasons leading UAlbany’s program, Gattuso has collected a 17-17 overall record and 9-15 mark in CAA play.