Three seasons ago, Towson's football team was greeted by the Atlantic 10 with a big zero, an 0-8 record in league play that underscored just how demanding the new affiliation was going to be.
But those trying days have vanished and as the Tigers go through spring practice, they are on the edge of joining the elite in the league, now called the Colonial Athletic Association.
"We want to win the A-10 and get to the playoffs, make more of a statement," said linebacker Brian Bradford, who is being touted as a potential All-American in his senior year. "One step at a time. Before last year we were coming off a 6-5 record and still got picked last. We want to put that behind us."
Coach Gordy Combs added: "I don't think we're awed by anybody anymore."
After finishing 4-4 in the league last season, 7-4 overall, and barely missing postseason play, Towson appears pretty well equipped to improve its record and join Massachusetts, James Madison and New Hampshire as the teams to beat in the Colonial, perhaps the toughest conference in what was formerly known as Division I-AA.
The spring is a time for fine tuning and discovery, but there are few surprises with the Tigers, who might have made the postseason but for a heartbreaking, one-point loss in November to William and Mary.
If there is one questionable area on the roster, it is the defensive line, which lost two major cogs in George Mitchell and Carlos Allen.
"We weren't in a lot of blowouts, and some of our younger players didn't get much of an opportunity to play," said Combs, who is expecting two senior linemen hampered by injuries in 2006 (T.J. Foley and Haines Holloway) to lead the unit. John Sutherland has been shifted from the offensive line to nose guard and Combs is also hoping for significant contributions from Richard Lee and Scott Bullock.
Towson abandoned its 4-3 defense and adopted a 3-4 alignment last season when Bob Benson became the defensive coordinator. The idea was to take advantage of the team's depth and athletic ability at linebacker where Bradford, Jordan Manning, John Webb and probably Maurice Wilkins will play.
Bradford believes continuity will be a positive factor for the defense.
"It's the first time we've had the same coordinator back to back," he said. "We're working hard on it. We're more energetic and sometimes we feel like we have it down."
A member of that first recruiting group that suffered the disappointment of a winless league record, Bradford said: "We realize this is our last chance and we want to leave out of here on a great note. There is still more to accomplish."
The league's strength can be accented by one simple fact. The Tigers' outstanding quarterback, Sean Schaefer (260-for-380, 3,033 yards and 19 touchdown passes) didn't make one of the top three all-league teams. A two-year starter, he returns as a junior with plenty of targets (headed by receivers Marcus Lee and Demetrius Harrison) and the team's three leading rushers.
"Our deep positions are tailback and wide receiver," Combs said. "From an offensive perspective we don't have a lot of vacancies."
The huge gap offensively is at left tackle, where all-league Jermon Bushrod departed and is apparently headed for the NFL. Sophomore Leon Stevenson is the leading candidate to replace him on what is an otherwise veteran starting corps. One member of the group, Nick Bradway, is missing spring practice after breaking an ankle in gymnastics class, but he is expected to be ready in the fall.
All in all, the Tigers are confident 2007 could bring a breakthrough.
"We'll soon be at a full complement of scholarships for Division I-AA, and we've got solid guys coming in, athletic people," Combs said. "Practicing against quality people every day will make us better."