Fans of Black College Football can expect an intriguing and highly competitive 2015 season.
The season gets underway Thursday night with defending Black College National Champion Alcorn State playing up a level against Georgia Tech. The Braves don’t figure to fare well against the Yellow Jackets, but they are the team to beat among HBCUs. They enter the season ranked 20th in The Sporting News FCS top 25 after posting a 9-3 record in 2014 and winning the SWAC championship and are No. 1 among HBCUs. Quarterback John Gibbs Jr. (1,006 rushing yards, 2,482 passing yards, 33 total touchdowns), the 2014 Black College Offensive Player of the Year, returns for his senior season and will lead an offensive unit that averaged 493 yards and 44 points a game.The Braves should easily be the class of the SWAC East Division.
Alabama State lured highly successful Coach Brian Jenkins away from Bethune-Cookman, where he won or shared the MEAC title four times during his five-year tenure, in hope of closing the gap on Alcorn after underachieving the past several seasons. Jenkins will rely on hot-and-cold quarterback Daniel Duhart (2,318 passing yards, 11 touchdowns) to lead the Hornets’ offense. The Hornets should get a good idea about their season early on.
Their first three games are against Tennessee State, Alcorn and Grambling State. A three-way battle to escape the East Division cellar is shaping up between Alabama A&M, Jackson State and Mississippi Valley State. The common dominator among the trio is that each school’s coach is in his second season. Optimism abounds at Alabama A&M the heels on the Bulldogs’ 4-8 record in Coach James’ Spady’s first season. Four of the Bulldogs’ losses were by a total of 15 points, and they return a trio of proven running backs in sophomores Harvey Harris (694 yards) and Byran Brower (466 yards) and senior Brandon Eldemire (553 yards). The key will be finding a quarterback to run their Pistol offense.
Embattled Jackson State coach Harold Jackson is hanging his hopes on preseason All-SWAC quarterback LaMontiez Ivy and a defense that has been retooled by highly regarded coordinator Alonzo Lee.
Mississippi Valley was in the bottom two of the conference in virtually every major statistical category in 2014 with a lack of depth being a major factor. Coach Rick Comegy hopes a strong recruiting class solved that problem, but inexperience will still be an issue. But the Braves are likely to face a stern challenge from Grambling State just to win their conference championship and a berth in the inaugural Celebration Bowl opposite the MEAC champion.
Grambling State looks like the biggest obstacle between Alcorn and second straight SWAC title. The G-Men surprisingly finished second in the SWAC West a year ago in Coach Broderick Fobbs’ first season missed out on playing in the conference championship when they lost in the Bayou Classic. The G-Men, who return 24 seniors, will be strong along both lines. Chad Williams, Chester Rogers and Verlon Hunter provide a solid offensive front that will allow senior quarterback Johnathan Williams (2,454 passing yards, 18 touchdowns) to run the balanced old school attack that Fobbs likes.
Southern, the defending West champion and the 2013 conference champ, has a ton of experienced players returning across the board, led by sophomore quarterback Austin Howard (2,334 yards, 17 touchdowns). However, the Jaguars had to play catch up during fall practice after having spring drills canceled because of Academic Progress Rate (APR) sanctions, and they will have restrictions on practice time during the season as well. That could give Grambling enough of an edge to win the division.
Texas Southern could be the spoiler in the division after posting a 5-6 record last season. The Tigers’ defense will get a boost with the return to health of 2013 All-SWAC lineman Amir Bloom. Bloom will team with linebacker Darian Claiborne, 2014 SWAC Newcomer of the Year after transferring from Texas A&M, as the leaders of the defense that first-year coordinator Heishma Northern has installed.
Prairie View A&M is rebooting under first-year coach Willie Simmons, who didn’t have spring drills because of APR sanctions. The Panthers have some talent on hand, especially at running back with preseason All-America Johnta Hebert (1,063 rushing yards) and Courtney Brown, who rushed 1,000 yards in 2013 but miss all of last season with an injury. But they don’t have enough to be legitimate championship contenders.
Arkansas-Pine Bluff has boat load of problems to solve on both sides of the ball. The Golden Lions were last in the SWAC in scoring defense and next to last in scoring offense. The prospects for improvement aren’t promising as Coach Monte Coleman will rely on inexperienced starters all over the place, most glaringly at quarterback, where redshirt sophomore Marcus Terrell takes over for career passing leader Benjamin Anderson.
The MEAC has established itself as the most competitive conference in Black College football. Last season’s five-way tie for the championship with Bethune-Cookman, Morgan State, North Carolina A&T, North Carolina Central and South Carolina State finishing in a deadlock bears that out. It’s likely that we will see a repeat in 2015, but look for another hotly contested race. North Carolina A&T, South Carolina State and Bethune-Cookman are the frontrunners.
North Carolina A&T went into the 2014 season finale with a chance to lock up the title with a win against North Carolina Central, but the Aggies lost. The defeat them has them highly motivated for 2015 and could be the edge they need. The Aggies boast the conference’s leading rusher and preseason Offensive Player of the Year in junior running back Tarik Cohen (121.8 yards a game).
Perennial championship contender South Carolina State will be in the thick of things again. The Bulldogs will rely on their tried and true formula of strong defense, led by lineman Javon Hargrave, 2014 MEAC Defensive Player of the Year, and a ball-control offense.
Bethune-Cookman has new look with the departure of Coach Brian Jenkins to Alabama State. But in reality it will be the same look for the Wildcats, who won or shared four conference championships during Jenkins’ five-year tenure. Terry Sims, who coached with Jenkins for 20 years and is his successor, says nothing will change as he will follow the same blueprint on offense and defense that led to the Wildcats’ success. That means a heavy dose of the running game led by running back Anthony Jordan (579 yards, 12 touchdowns) and an aggressive defense.
Morgan State and North Carolina Central were surprise teams a year ago as they captured a share of the title with first-year, first-time coaches – Lee Hull at Morgan State and Jerry Mack at North Carolina Central. That will be a tough act for them to follow in 2015 even though both teams should be improved with a year of experience behind them.
Morgan State’s big gun is 5-8 junior running back Herb Walker who led the MEAC in total rushing yards (1,408). North Carolina Central has 15 starters returning. Quarterback Malcolm Bell (1,982 passing yards, 15 touchdowns) and All-MEAC wide receiver Quentin Atkinson (49 catches, 615 yards) give the Eagles a dangerous pass-catch combination.
Hampton coach Connell Maynor looks to return the Pirates to respectability in year two of his regime. Maynor has turned to University of Virginia transfer quarterback David Watford to lead the offense. But improved overall depth will be the tale of the tape when it comes to how the Pirates fare. Norfolk State and Delaware State have brought in new coaches with an eye on moving up in the standings.
Latrell Scott brings a reputation for quick turnarounds with him to Norfolk State. Scott was 19-4 in two seasons at Virginia State, and he led the Trojans to two CIAA Northern Division titles, the 2014 conference championship and the first Division II playoff berth in school history. The first order of business for Scott is to inject life into the Spartans’ anemic offense that averaged 11.7 points a game and ninth among 11 teams in total offense (241 yards a game). Running back Gerald Johnson, a transfer from Old Dominion, will be called on to carry the load in the running game.
Kenneth Carter takes over an offensively challenged squad at Delaware State as well. The Hornets were last in scoring (11.3) and total offense (228.8). Florida A&M, Howard and Savannah State are ineligible for the conference championship and the accompanying Celebration Bowl because of APR sanctions. Even if they were eligible, it’s highly unlikely that any of them would contend for the championship.