PORTLAND — The University of Maine football team always plays a tough schedule. This season, the Black Bears’ schedule is among the toughest in program history.

After opening at rival University of New Hampshire on Aug. 31, Maine hosts Bryant on Sept. 9. Then, the Black Bears play back-to-back-to-back road games that could define their season.

Maine plays at defending national champion James Madison, then at Football Bowl Subdivision Central Florida, before ending this brutal three-game stretch at Villanova, a perennial Colonial Athletic Association power.

“These three games will test any team in the country at our level,” former Maine head coach Jack Cosgrove said.

Cosgrove, who retired after more than two decades as Maine’s head coach following the 2015 season, filled in for Maine head coach Joe Harasymiak at the annual National Football Foundation Howard Vandersea Chapter’s kickoff luncheon Thursday. The Black Bears began preseason practices Wednesday, which prevented Harasymiak from attending.

“(Harasymiak) wanted to be here, but it was time to get to work,” Cosgrove said.

Cosgrove noted the Black Bears return eight starters on offense and seven on defense from the team that won six of its final eight games lasts season to finish 6-5. Cosgrove named senior corner back Najee Good and offensive lineman Jamil Demby as keys to the Black Bears’ success.

“Jamil is as good an offensive lineman as I’ve seen at Maine,” Cosgrove said. “Good is a lockdown corner. When you get a lockdown corner, you can put more pressure on the quarterback.”

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The New England Small College Athletic Conference finally made a move that’s been discussed around the league for decades. This season, the conference will play a nine-game full round robin schedule, with every team playing each league member once. In the past, the league played an eight-game schedule, with each team skipping one opponent each season.

Bowdoin head coach JB Wells said a nine-game schedule was being discussed 30 years ago, when he was recruited by Trinity.

“The addition of a ninth game in the NESCAC is remarkable,” Wells said.

For Colby, the addition of the ninth game means the Mules will open the season at defending conference champion Trinity of Sept. 16. Colby head coach Jonathan Michaeles said his team erupted into cheers when the news of the ninth game broke.

“As soon as that hit, you could hear the roar come out of the weight room,” Michaeles said.

Bates is the defending Colby-Bates-Bowdoin rivalry champion. The Bobcats return all their skill players on offense, head coach Mark Harriman said, as well as a number of key offensive linemen.

“We have six guys, all with varsity experience, on the line,” Harriman said. “We feel good about those six guys.”

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The defending Eastern Collegiate Football Conference champion, Husson will play a tough non-conference schedule this season. That’s by design, head coach Gabby Price said.

“We want to be a New England team and play in New England. We certainly have great respect for teams we played, going out to New York, but we’re a New England school,” Price said.

Among the non-conference games Husson will play this fall are road trips to Western New England, the team that eliminated the Eagles in the first round of the NCAA Division III playoffs last season, and Endicott, which will become one of Husson’s conference rivals in 2019, when the Eagles join the Commonwealth Coast Conference.

Husson also has non-conference games against Union and Dean. The Eagles open ECFC play Oct. 7 at home against SUNY-Maritime.

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While Husson prepares for a move to a new conference in two years, Maine Maritime is making the move this fall. The Mariners were a founding member of the New England Football Conference, but with the formation in recent seasons of the Massachusetts State Collegiate Athletic Conference and Commonwealth Coast Conference football league, the NEFC is no more.

This season, MMA joins the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference, which adds football for the first time.

“It’s a pretty good conference. We’re excited to play in the NEWMAC,” MMA head coach Chris McKenney said.

Among the teams the Mariners will face in their new league are old NEFC foes MIT and Coast Guard. McKenney said he’s eager to begin new rivalries with schools like Springfield, Catholic, WPI, the Merchant Marine Academy, and Norwich.

The Mariners will continue their rivalry with Massachusetts Maritime and play for the 45th Admiral’s Cup on Sept. 16, McKenney said. Maine Maritime won the Admiral’s Cup in each of the last two seasons.

Lawrence graduate Jake Doolan returns for his fourth season in MMA’s backfield. Doolan ran for 674 yards last season.

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The University of New England takes another step in the creation of its football program this fall. Seventy-seven players are expected to report to camp on Aug. 11, including 20 players from Maine.

“We want to make sure we honor where we are,” UNE head coach Mike Lichton said.

Lichton has been recruiting for more than a year, and said he now has a full coaching staff in place.

“It’s been fun and exciting to be around football coaches again,” Lichton said. “We met for the first time together as a staff two days ago.”

The Nor’easters have players from all six New England states, Lichton said, as well as Florida, California, Texas and Washington. UNE will play a schedule against mostly junior varsity opponents this season, including games against Maine rivals Husson, Bates and Colby. The Nor’easters also will take on Bridgton Academy twice.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM