Fairfield, for lack of a better word, was pretty fortunate in 2012. The Stags went 12-4 last season, including a trip to the ECAC championship in which Fairfield fell to Loyola, 14-7. The Stags' season, though, wasn't without potential disaster: On four occasions, Fairfield was walking away from a flaming pickup truck just before it exploded.
Overtime wins against Bryant (9-8, 2OT), Hofstra (10-9, 3OT), UMBC (10-9, OT), and Denver (9-8, OT) kept Fairfield in the national conversation for a potential trip to the NCAA Tournament with an RPI ranking of 11 (which means absolutely nothing) and an RPI strength of schedule ranking of 28 (which means even less). In its dozen wins, the Stags only beat three teams by more than three goals -- Vermont, Lafayette, and Hobart; those teams combined for a 9-31 record on the year. I'm not saying that Fairfield was lucky or a mirage in 2012 -- Andy Copelan is a hell of a coach and the Stags did a lot of things very well last season -- but the Stags didn't exactly roll people over.
That's why I'm a little concerned about Fairfield in 2013. The schedule, which was announced late last week, isn't exactly full of a bunch of glass jaws and the Stags are going to have their work cut out for them. Let's pick it apart.
Non-Conference Schedule is Balanced and Improved
February 9: @ Stony Brook; February 16: @ Bryant; February 19: Navy; February 23: @ North Carolina; February 26: Hofstra; March 9: Yale
The highlights of Fairfield's 2012 non-conference schedule were dates against Bryant, Hofstra, and Colgate. This year, the Stags arguably increased the overall strength of their non-conference slate. The date at Chapel Hill is easily Fairfield's biggest game, and if the Stags can walk into Carolina and grab a win, that would change the entire complexion of their season even before March begins. Games against Stony Brook, Bryant, Navy, Hofstra, and Yale have sneaky RPI-boosting qualities and could help tip the scales toward Fairfield should they end up near the NCAA Tournament bubble in May. The out-of-conference schedule is not overly aggressive nor under-talented; it's a nice mix, and with should-be victories against UMBC and Quinnipiac also existing in March, Fairfield sees representatives from six conferences: America East, NEC, Patriot, ACC, THUNDERDOME!, and Ivy.
Fairfield should have a good sense of itself -- and we should have a good sense of the Stags -- come mid-March.
ECAC Schedule is Road-Heavy
April 6: @ Loyola; April 20: @ Denver; April 27: @ Ohio State
The bottom of the ECAC doesn't look all that meaty this season (although, Air Force sits with quiet potential to hang around .500 again in Colorado Springs), and that makes the four-way battle between Loyola, Denver, Ohio State, and Fairfield all that more important in the league in 2013. The Stags had the luxury of playing all four teams in Connecticut in 2012, a fact that yielded a single win against Denver (Ohio State dropped Fairfield 8-3 while the Greyhounds beat the Stags 8-6). This year, the Stags will need to go on the road to face all three, dealing with the altitude in Colorado, a Loyola team that should have found its stride by early April, and an Ohio State team -- at the end of the season -- that will likely be playing for, at a minimum, ECAC Tournament seeding.
These are all substantial trips for Fairfield, and given how strong all three teams should be next season, Fairfield could be a bit of trouble.