The Johns Hopkins football team has started 2-0 this season, perhaps affirming the accolades it received this preseason. Such respect, however, has raised the bar for a program that has captured the past four Centennial Conference titles.
That's not necessarily a bad thing for coach Jim Margraff.
"I think you want high expectations," he said. "I remember feeling a pit in my stomach years ago when we were picked to finish high in the conference. I think now you want people to think that you're good and you want to match those expectations. That's not something that is bothersome. I think … the pressure our guys put on themselves is much more than what anyone else could put on them."
The Blue Jays (2-0 overall and 1-0 in the conference), who face Moravian (0-2, 0-1) on Saturday, are No. 16 in the latest D3football.com regular-season poll, one spot above their preseason rank. Hopkins also was No. 9 and No. 10 overall in by The Sporting News' and Lindy's respective preseason polls —– the highest preseason rankings in program history.
But players did not put much stock in the newfound hype.
"It's definitely exciting, but I don't think it's something that we really dwell on," senior outside linebacker John Arena said. "It's an indication of success that we've had in the past, but we realize that once we strap on the pads, it doesn't mean a whole lot. We still have to go out there and win games."
Johns Hopkins has enjoyed unprecedented success since Margraff's arrival in 1990. The program has won eight Centennial Conference titles since 2002. The school also has qualified for the Division III playoffs four times, and advanced to the second round last November.
But the team's hopes for a national title ended there, as eventual champion Mount Union routed the Blue Jays, 55-13. The Purple Raiders intercepted two passes in the first quarter, both of which resulted in touchdowns. Mount Union added another score for an early 21-0 lead, and Johns Hopkins' season was essentially over.
That ending has mattered more to senior quarterback Robbie Matey than any ranking.
"It's something I personally go to sleep every night thinking about," he said of the loss. "Personally, I want to remember that feeling just so we don't get complacent, because every single team we're going to play this year is going to bring it, because we do have that bull's-eye on our backs. So we have to play our 'A' game because teams are going to play up to us, and we have to play to the best of our ability week in and week out."
The playoff loss doesn't haunt Arena nearly as much, but he said Blue Jays players have used that setback as a learning experience.
"I don't think you want to forget everything in the past," he said. "You learn a lot from your past experiences, and it's something we plan to build upon."
Margraff said he would be concerned if the team focused too much on last season's end.
"I would hope that our guys walked off and said, 'If we play our best game, we could hang around with a team like that. And with some hard work, we can get to a point where we can compete at a high level year in and year out,' " he said. "Up to that point last year, I don't think we could. We were a good team, but there were two or three top teams and then a bunch of really good ones after that, and I think we're just starting to dance with that crew right now. Our goal is to win the Centennial Conference championship. After that, it's win or go home."
The Centennial Conference title, not the NCAA title, is the primary objective, according to the Blue Jays. The overwhelming preseason pick to finish first in the league, Johns Hopkins is fully aware that opponents like Franklin & Marshall, Ursinus and Muhlenberg are eager to take the top spot.
"It starts with winning the Centennial Conference championship," Arena said. "We go out to win all the games we play. So we focus on the Centennial Conference and then, hopefully, we'll have the opportunity to go on. But we're not going to look at that until that point gets here."
Even McDaniel, the Blue Jays' biggest rival and a team picked to finish last in the 10-team conference, would love nothing more than to knock them from their perch. That's why Matey said the team can concern itself only with its opponents.
"You enter every week with a bull's-eye on your back," Matey said. "But you're never satisfied. So I wouldn't say that it's more difficult, because you go in with the same thought process every year. This is a clean slate and you forget about the past and just focus on the next week's opponent."
The culture at Johns Hopkins has changed. There's a sense of confidence on the field and off it, and Margraff is excited about the direction the Blue Jays are moving in.
"I guess now we're just hitting a level of expectation that is different than it has been in the past," he said. "I said to several people already — and I don't put us in the same class — when you look at top programs in any sport like the New England Patriots or the Ravens or Alabama, these guys deal with this stuff every year. We're just starting to deal with it now, where people think we're good or might be good. It's still a long season."