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Franklin & Marshall running  back Joe Hartley-Vittoria (28) squeezes into the endzone in a 2018 Centennial Conference contest with Johns Hopkins. Hartley-Vittoria is one of nine returning offensive starters for the Diplomats, who open the 2019 Season Saturday at Lebanon Valley.

If you could somehow teleport this 2019 Franklin & Marshall football team to 2006, or 2007, they would be favored to win the Centennial Conference championship.

Assuming you could find a DeLorean big enough to hold 87 players.

Not idle speculation, mind you, but the opinion of none other than Diplomats head coach John Troxell.

With this year’s edition of the Dips picked in the CC preseason poll to finish no better than fourth, Troxell — opening his 14th season at the helm of the Diplomats — made the point that the Centennial is becoming a Division Three power conference.

With national semifinalist Johns Hopkins shooting for its 11th straight CC title and 2018 co-champion, and national quarterfinalist, Muhlenberg hot on the Blue Jays’ heels — in the CC poll as well as several national polls — and Susquehanna, F&M and Ursinus not far behind, it’s not hard to see Troxell’s point.

“You get the No. 6 (Hopkins) and the No. 8 (Muhlenberg) in the country, us (ranked) at 27, Susquehanna at 30 and Ursinus at 40; I don’t remember it being this good,” said Troxell.

It’s been this good, quietly, for a while.

As they prepare to open the 2019 season Saturday at Lebanon Valley College, the Diplomats have, not so quietly, worked their way back into the CC conversation under Troxell, going 25-8 over the past three seasons, winning a CC title in 2017 and winning four of six bowl game appearances.

“When we got here,” Troxell said, “we had some work to do. Each class has built on the expectation of passing that along to the other guys that we are going to win here.”

And expectations are high this year, despite the graduations of wide receiver K.J. Pretty and quarterback Tanner Erisman on the offensive side of the ball and defensive stalwart Joe Granahan.

“People will think that we lost a lot, guys that we talk about as legends. How do you replace them? You become one yourself,” said Troxell.

“It’s just somebody else’s turn to step up and become the guy that we look to. Guys that, at the beginning of the year nobody knew about, but by the end of the year you say, ‘Man these guys are really good.’ ”

About the offense

Yes, Erisman is gone, as was E.J. Schneider before him, and John Harrison before that, to name two ‘legends’.

Junior Garrett Perschy has nosed ahead of senior Jack Donaghy (10-22-1, 136 yards, two TDs) for the moment as the next man up  under center.

There’s a deep corps of receiving talent returning, including Tim Walter (45 catches, 564 yards, 2 TDs), Kevin Lammers (24-270-4), Brendan Dearing (9-96) and Garden Spot grad Mack Focht (5-93).

Running back is another area deep in returning talent with Joe Hartley-Vittoria (186 rushes, 800 yards, 8 TDs), Keshon Farmer (106-591-10) and Eric Harris (30-107). Hartley-Vittoria also caught 15 balls for 93 yards.

Tasked with keeping defenders out of the backfield, and paving the way for the backs to pierce the defense, is an offensive line rich in experience.

It is led by two-time All-CC selection Brian Denoncour, who looks to become just the 47th player in conference history to be a consecutive, three-time first teamer.

“There’s a lot of experience,” Denoncour agreed. “Phil Weiser, Tim Fink, are three year starters. Jordan Sellers and Mike Ioannides are two-year starters.”

“It always starts up front,” said Troxell. “I think we have one of the best offensive lines in the league.”

About the defense

Safety Marlen Fenstermacher was fourth on the team with 50 tackles and intercepted two passes and is one of three returning members of the defensive backfield, along with Nick Leone and K.J. Boston, joined by newcomer Isaiah Chery.

Linebacker Sebastian Silva-Munoz topped the team with 38 solo tackles, his 60 total second overall, and is joined by Matt Hamby, who saw action in all 11 games, and Calvin Krippner, who got into nine.

Up front Dom Bertone, Kevin Gault and Lancaster Catholic grad Peyton Snopek, bring experience, if not reputation — yet — with Frank McGlinchey (24 tackles, 3.5 for losses) the veteran of the bunch.

About the coaching staff

Assistant head coach and offensive coordinator Kevin Baumann is back for his eleventh season. Defensive coordinator Mark Fetterman returns for season six.

Pat Conrad, in his second season, coaches running backs. Defensive line coach Jimmy Cianciola is in his third year.

Newcomers Meade Clendaniel (defensive backs), Rick Stavig (tight ends) and Bryce Stephenson (linebackers) round out the staff.

About the CC

The conference was rocked by the second untimely passing of a head coach in less than two years when long-time Johns Hopkins mentor Jim Margraff died suddenly in January, two weeks after being named the Division Three National Coach-of-the-Year.

Offensive coordinator Greg Chimera was elevated to head coach.

“They have a large number of kids and almost all of them are back,” Troxell noted. “It’s going to help them get through the transition.

“That’s kind of what Muhlenberg did when Duke (head coach Mike Donnelly) passed. They didn’t miss a beat.

“I’d like to say that coaches are key to this thing,” he added, “but usually it’s the players who are more important.”