NORFOLK, Va.  – The days of people thinking North Carolina A&T is a lower-tier football program in the MEAC seem to be behind the Aggies.

It was announced on Friday at the annual Preseason MEAC Football Luncheon at Norfolk’s Waterside Marriott Hotel that MEAC head coaches and sports information directors predicted the Aggies to finish third in the conference in 2013.

A&T went 7-4 and 5-3 in the MEAC during the 2012 season. A season removed from its first winning season in nine years, A&T garnered 302 points in the preseason poll.

S.C. State, a team the Aggies beat for the first time in 12 years with a 17-7 win on Nov. 10, 2012, were picked to finish second with 365 points and two first-place votes. Bethune-Cookman, who won the MEAC title last season, was picked to repeat with 480 points and 16 first-place votes.

“My hope is that we have a really good football team,” said A&T head coach Rod Broadway. “I expect us to be competitive, play hard and do the right things as far as football and school is concerned. How the ball bounces, I don’t know. I know we will be well prepared, and I know the guys are going to give great effort. This could be a big year for us despite not having spring practice.”

The Aggies were not allowed to have spring practice in 2013 because NCAA sanctions stemming from a poor academic progress rate score. But Aggies’ restrictions administered by the NCAA have been lifted because of improved single-year scores over the past four years.

A&T is now eligible to win the MEAC Championship and advance to the postseason. To help in that effort, the Aggies return all four starters from a secondary that posted the No. 1 pass defense in the Football Championship Subdivision. They return seven defensive starters in all from a defense that was ranked No. 2 in Division I-FCS.

“Last year we were able to win because of our defensive play,” said Broadway. “Offensive football can be so unpredictable. Defensively, you have a chance of always being good. If you’re sound defensively, that’s going to keep you in a lot of football games.”

The Aggies offense only produced four touchdown receptions last season. Broadway hopes the addition of veteran offensive coordinator Rickey Bustle will ignite the Aggies passing game, making it easier for senior running backs Ricky Lewis and Dominique Drake to operate.

“He brings experience, leadership and knowledge, and he is committed to his work,” said Broadway about Bustle.

The Aggies open the season in Boone, N.C., when they take on Appalachian State, Saturday, Sept. 7 at 6 p.m. They come home a week later to face Piedmont rival Elon at 6 p.m. For ticket information please call the A&T ticket office at (336) 334-7749.