The Howard University football schedule lists 10 games this season, but the Bison know their postseason chances likely will be determined before the whistle blows to start game No. 4.

The Bison finished last season 8-3, winning their final seven games, including a 42-10 thrashing of Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champion North Carolina A&T. But because of Howard's poor start and overall weak schedule, there was little playoff bid consideration given to a team that by mid-November was among the best in Division I-AA.

Optimism is running high this fall on Georgia Avenue. Returning for the fourth year of Coach Willie Jeffries' rebuilding program are 19 starters, including senior tailback Harvey Reed, who ranked fifth in the nation last season with a 138 yard-per-game rushing average and third in scoring with 18 touchdowns.

The Bison were fifth in the preseason Sheridan Poll's ranking of major black colleges.

Optimism, however, won't be enough to overcome two old MEAC nemeses that traditionally appear early on the schedule and usually end Howard's chances of winning its first conference title. After opening with Newberry College (4-7 in the NAIA last season), Howard travels to Daytona Beach, Fla., for a meeting with Bethune-Cookman.

One week later, the Bison host South Carolina State at Greene Stadium. Howard has a combined record of 3-19-1 against those MEAC opponents. Even last season, when Bethune-Cookman finished 3-8 and South Carolina State was 5-6, the two found Howard easy pickings, beating the Bison, 30-6, and, 44-23, respectively.

"In the past, we,played well late in the season," said Reed, who holds virtually every school rushing record. "This time, we have to start playing well early by not making the mistakes we have made early in other seasons. Most of us have been playing together now since our freshman year, and we have been playing against most of the same guys at Bethune-Cookman and South Carolina State all these years. You just can't keep biting on a mutt because sooner or later, it is going to start biting back. We owe them."

Howard's offense appears ready to pay that debt. Junior quarterback Lee DeBose showed last season he could master the run-oriented dive-option formation. The Bison averaged 411 yards total offense and 32 points per game as the 5-foot-9 DeBose rushed for 539 yards and passed for 13 touchdowns.

Although the speed and deceptive moves of Reed and DeBose will command the attention, it will be the blocking and inside running of 5-10, 215-pound senior fullback Ronnie Epps that will determine how much space opens up outside. Epps, who rushed for 474 yards and four touchdowns, returned healthy this fall after missing four games last season with a knee injury.

Defenses will not be able to stack up front to stop Howard's running game. The wide receivers are senior Curtis Chappell, who was second in the nation in kickoff returns last year (a 31.1-yard average), and redshirt sophomore Derrick Faison, who turned nine of his 18 receptions into touchdowns.

The offensive line averages 280 pounds, seems solid and finally shows some depth. Dwight Brunson has moved from center to right guard to make room for redshirt sophomore Todd Meiklejohn, who was highly touted before surgery on both knees slowed him.

"Our offensive line has a lot of confidence," said offensive line coach Nick Calcutta. "Everybody will be looking to stop Harvey Reed, but if they put everybody on the perimeter, we will just bang through the inside."

If the starting line does not possess enough size to startle most opponents, reserve tackle Willie Felder might. The 6-6 redshirt sophomore from Sumter, S.C., weighed in at 401 pounds, a gain of more than 20 from last year.

Instead of being upset with Felder, however, Calcutta was encouraged, pointing out "Big Willie" actually lost fat content and gained muscle in a rigorous offseason weight-training effort.

With an offense of Howard's caliber, it is accepted that the defense, which allowed an average of only 11.7 points during the winning streak, can make some mistakes and still be a winner.

"We don't have to be the best defensive team in the country," said Jeffries. "We hope we can just keep on constant pressure and not give up too many big plays."

The defensive line, a subject of preseason concern, got a boost when 310-pound senior Eric Moore, an all-MEAC offensive guard who runs a 4.9 40, showed he could make the switch to defensive tackle. Another defensive tackle, James Moore (no relation), a 6-1, 250-pound sophomore, was the most pleasant surprise of summer practice. Their presence should take some pressure off nose guard Billy Dores and linebacker Marvin Jackson, who have been Howard's steadiest defensive players the past three years.

The difference in the defense, however, could be redshirt freshman strong safety James Moses. "We have had several good defensive players here, but we needed a great athlete who is a role model," said defensive coordinator Ben Blacknall. "He could be that type of impact player."

The impact, however, must be made early.

"We tell our kids you either get better or you get worse; you don't stay the same," said Calcutta. "Those first three games will set the tone. We have chased that brass ring and didn't get it. Now it is our time to grab it."