By Anthony McClean, Editor In Chief Emeritus
NEW HAVEN, Ct. — After a brief taste of games last Saturday and this past Thursday, the first full plate of important contests in HBCU football will be served in earnest this weekend.
Among the highlights of the weekend will be the annual MEAC-SWAC Challenge to be played at Georgia State Stadium in Atlanta on Sunday. This year’s matchup features the first-ever meeting between the Eagles of North Carolina Central and the Prairie View A&M Panthers.
Granville Eastman will be making his head coaching debut with NCCU. He joined the Eagles staff in January 2014, serving as assistant head coach, defensive coordinator and safeties coach until his promotion to interim head coach on Dec. 8, 2017.
Eastman succeeded Jerry Mack who left to be the offensive coordinator at Rice.
Ironically, it was the Owls that handed Prairie View A&M its first loss of the season. Rice won on the final play of the game, winning 31-28 at Rice Stadium last Saturday against the Panthers.
PVAM led 28-19 late in the third quarter before the Owls rallied by scoring the final 12 points of the game in the fourth, including a 23-yard field goal on the final play of the game, for the final margin.
Sunday’s contest will be NCCU’s first appearance in the MEAC-SWAC Challenge. The Eagles return nine starters (six offense, three defense) from last year’s 7-4 (5-3 MEAC) squad.
The MEAC leads the MEAC-SWAC Challenge 9-3 since the event started in 2005. In fact, the MEAC had won five straight games in the Challenge from 2011-15, before Southern University beat South Carolina State in 2017.
The game, scheduled for a 12 noon ET kickoff, will be broadcast live on ESPN2.
A “BIG” MOVE SOUTH FOR HAMPTON
It’s been 22 years since Hampton University moved from the CIAA to the MEAC.
Following a messy divorce that played out like “Basketball Wifes Meets The Housewives of Atlanta”, the Pirates officially joined the Big South last month following their announcement last November.
According to an article by the Virginian-Pilot in February, the rift between the MEAC and the school stems from the Pirates’ proposed 2018 football schedule. Despite the move, HU officials allegedly said they were open to playing another season of MEAC football.
However, MEAC officials have stated that as far back as 2017 Hampton and the league had yet to agree on the terms of the Pirates’ exit. It was later revealed that the annual “Battle of the Bay” contest between HU and Norfolk State was canceled the first time since 1963.
Just days after the article appeared in print, HU officials accused the MEAC of levying “vindictive sanctions” and requesting “unreasonable demands” ahead of the university’s transition.
The great unknown is whether Hampton made the decision not to play a MEAC schedule or the league elected for the Pirates not to play. Some media outlets have said it was a MEAC decision, while some have stated otherwise.
By the way, because many of the football schedules for Big South schools were already full for the 2018 season, 2019 would be the soonest the Pirates could officially join the league in football.
Hampton will compete in the Big South Conference in most other sports for the 2018-19 campaign, including men’s and women’s basketball according to league commissioner Kyle Kallander.
On the field, new head coach Robert Prunty will make his debut Saturday when the Pirates host Shaw at Armstrong Stadium. Prunty served last season as East Carolina University’s associate head coach, defensive coordinator and defensive line coach.
Prior to that, he served four years at the University of Cincinnati as an associate head coach and defensive ends coach and three years as co-defensive coordinator. He inherits 12 starters (seven offense, five defense) from last year’s 6-5 squad (5-3 in the MEAC).
As for the Bears, they’re coming off a frustrating 3-7 mark (2-5 in the CIAA) under Adrian Jones. Picked to finish eighth overall and fourth in the Southern Division during the CIAA Preseason Poll, Shaw fell in three divisional games by a touchdown or less.
The contest marks the 38th meeting between the two programs, the last meeting occurred in 1978 with Hampton winning 24-17 at home. The game, scheduled for a 6 pm ET kickoff, can be seen live on ESPN Plus.
No Devante Kincaid? No problem. Martez “Mr. Excitement” Carter has graduated? No worries, we got this. You have to replace your entire secondary? Like I told you, we’re good.
Despite all those setbacks, the current football life for the two-time defending SWAC champions of Grambling State is still pretty good. Coach Broderick Fobbs has over 40 returnees from last year’s 11-2 squad including senior linebacker De’Arius Christmas, the league’s preseason pick as defensive player of the year.
Unbeaten in the SWAC the last three years (31-2 overall in the conference under Fobbs), the Tigers will open the season Saturday (7 pm ET on ESPN Plus) at Cajun Field in their first-ever meeting against the University of Louisiana-Lafayette.
The Ragin’ Cajuns went 5-7 a year ago but were 3-2 at Cajun Field. This will be the first game under new head coach Billy Napier at Louisiana. Saturday’s game is the Herbert Heymann Football Classic, which honors one of the great philanthropists at Louisiana.
In other games, when Alcorn State opens the season against Georgia Tech (12:30 pm ET), it will pit two of the nation’s top-10 rushing attacks from the 2017 season against each other.
The Braves, powered by 2018 SWAC Preseason Offensive Player of the Year P.J. Simmons ranked ninth in FCS with an average of 237.4 yards a game, while the Yellow Jackets amassed 307.4 yards a game good for fifth in FBS.
The game, slated for a 12:30 pm ET kickoff, can be seen live on the ACC Network.
Also, Alabama State has high expectations following a 5-1 surge to end the 2017 season under coach Donald Hill-Eley. However, this is Hill-Eley’s first meeting versus Tuskegee as head coach (6 pm ET on the SWAC Digital Network and HBCU Gameday).
The Hornets will look to avenge last season’s 14-6 upending at the hands of the Golden Tigers – who have won four of the last five meetings — in a game where Alabama State dominated several statistical categories.
One other key contest, Southern travels to Fort Worth, Texas to meet TCU at 12 noon ET.
For the defending league champions from Virginia State, Saturday (6 pm ET) will mark a return to the fruits of their title run. The Trojans travel to Dick Price Stadium to battle their crosstown rivals from Norfolk State in the Union Bank & Trust Labor Day Classic.
En route to their CIAA title, VSU (10-1, 7-0 CIAA) opened 2017 with a 14-10 victory on the road against the Spartans. After a five-year hiatus of the Labor Day Classic, the Trojans were able to secure the victory over NSU for the first time since 2005.
Tabbed to finish second in the conference and second in the Northern Division, Reggie Barlow seeks to replace the loss of CIAA Offensive Player of the Year and NFL draftee, Trenton Cannon.
As for the Spartans, Latrell Scott’s squad finished 4-7 (4-4 MEAC) last year. All seven offensive linemen who started games for NSU last year are back from an offense that has nine returning starters overall.
Virginia State leads the overall series 27-20-1. The game can be seen live on ESPN Plus.
In other games, defending Southern Division champion Fayetteville State (6-5, 5-2 CIAA) will open on the road Saturday night (7 pm ET) as they battle Lincoln (Pa.) at LU Football Stadium
In just his second season with the Broncos, coach Richard Hayes Jr. led FSU to the championship game. A five-game winning streak at the end of the regular season helped power them to the title game.
Projected to repeat as division champs in the CIAA Preseason Poll, the expectation level has been raised in Fayetteville. The league’s last two rookies of the year — running backs Stevie Green and Donshel Jetton — are among the returnees from last season.
Green averaged 114.27 yards per game and finished with 1,257 for the season. Jetton averaged 50 yards and racked up a season total of 550 yards. With the pair, the Broncos averaged 323 yards of total offense per game, 180 from rushing alone.
Also, Winston-Salem State will host UNC Pembroke Saturday night in their season opener. Tabbed to finish second in the Southern Division and fourth overall, the Rams look to improve from last year’s 6-4 overall record and a 4-3 record in conference play.
Offensively, WSSU has seven returning starters including senior running back Kerrion Moore and senior offensive lineman Deveonte Mackey. Moore finished the 2017 season with 889 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns.
He ranked fifth in the conference in rushing in spite of missing the final two games due to an injury. Mackey, a preseason All-CIAA selection, was a key to many of those yards with strong play on the offensive line.
The Braves are looking to improve following a disappointing 2-8 campaign in 2017. The game, scheduled for a 6 pm ET kickoff at Bowman Gray Stadium, can be seen live on the CIAA Sports Network.
The early season schedule will get even tougher for North Carolina A&T this weekend. Fresh off their win against Jacksonville State, the Aggies will travel to Greenville, N.C. to meet FBS opponent East Carolina.
A&T has won two out of their last three games against FBS programs including a 39-35 quadruple overtime win at Kent State in 2016. They also defeated the Charlotte 49ers 35-31 last season in Charlotte.
The Pirates are coming off a 3-9 season where they surrendered 541.7 yards per game. ECU’s passing game, however, was stellar. They ranked 12th in the nation in passing offense registering 317.9 yards per game.
The Aggies are coming off a game where they surrendered 320 yards passing to Jacksonville State. Scheduled for a 6 pm ET kickoff at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, the game can be seen live on ESPN Plus.
In other games, Mike London and the Howard Bison seek to take the next step and win their first MEAC title since 1993. A year removed their historic upset victory against UNLV, Howard opens the season in Athens, Ohio to meet FBS opponent Ohio University.
13 starters (six offense, seven defense) return from last year’s 7-4 (6-2 in the MEAC) turnaround squad. Tabbed to finish second in the league, London and his staff has filled voids with several prospects while adding depth to various positions.
Quarterback Caylin Newton became the first freshman in MEAC history to surpass 3,000 yards of total offense (3,185) while averaging 289.5 yards of offense per outing. He led the league in scoring as he combined for 25 touchdowns en route to leading Howard to its best finish and record since 2012
Defensively, second-year pass rusher Aaron Motley led the squad with five sacks while registering 39 tackles (35 solos), six pass breakups, and three forced fumbles despite missing three games.
The Bobcats went 9-4 overall and finished second in the MAC East Division with a 5-3 mark in league play. The 2017 season saw Ohio earn bowl eligibility for the ninth-straight season and make its eighth bowl appearance during that span. They ended the year on a high note, rolling to a 41-6 triumph over UAB in the Bahamas Bowl.
The game, scheduled for a 2 pm ET kickoff, can be seen live on ESPN Plus.
Also, the Willie Simmons era is set to begin in Tallahassee as Florida A&M hosts Fort Valley State in the Jake Gaither Classic at Bragg Memorial Stadium (5 pm ET). The former Prairie View A&M head coach and Florida native is looking to revive the Rattlers’ program.
Simmons fashioned a 21-11 overall mark (19-6 in the SWAC) with the Panthers, highlighted by an 8-2 debut campaign in 2015, which included an 8-1 runner-up finish to eventual Western Division champion Grambling State.
As for the Wildcats, it’s the second straight year they’ll open their season against an FCS opponent. Last September, FVSU made the trek to Baton Rouge, La., against Southern, but it fell in a 31-14 final.
After back-to-back SIAC Championship game appearances, Fort Valley State’s drive for its second title in three years begins Saturday. The Wildcats received one East Division first-place vote in the Preseason Rankings behind rival Albany State and Benedict.
FVSU returns the 2017 SIAC Newcomer of the Year, Slade Jarmon at quarterback and all-conference awardees, wide receiver Lorenzo Smothers and cornerback Cameron Young. In two seasons, head coach Kevin Porter has compiled a 10-11 record with the Wildcats.
Albany State’s Golden Rams are set to hit the road as they open up for the fifth year in a row against Valdosta State University (7 pm ET). During last year’s contest, the Golden Rams stunned the Blazers with their first 29-12 win under then, first-year head coach, Gabe Giardina.
This matchup is no stranger to the two Division II powerhouses as they have faced off long before then in the Division II playoffs in 2004 and 2007. The Golden Rams will rely on all-conference honoree, senior running back McKinley Habersham to set the tone of the 2018 season.
In other games, the Golden Bears of Miles College seeks revenge this year within the conference with an opener against Alabama A&M. This is a historic rivalry, that is no stranger to Miles College.
After entering the conference in 1927 and before becoming Miles College, the “Golden Tornadoes” now known as the “Golden Bears” defeated Alabama A&M Aggies, 12-0, in Huntsville, Alabama as the first matchup between the two Alabama schools.
Due to A&M’s joining of the SIAC in 1941, Alabama became a huge stage for HBCU football as both the Golden Bears and Bulldogs remained conference rivals until A&M’s departure in 1998.
This year, the two will face off in Huntsville, Alabama in the Louis Crews Classic (7 pm ET) named after the winningest coach to ever pace the sidelines for Alabama A&M compiling a 93-53-3 record and leading the Bulldogs to an undefeated season in 1963.
Former WSSU and Hampton head coach Connell Maynor will be making his debut as the Bulldogs skipper. Under head coach, Reginald Ruffin, the Golden Bears went 6-4 (4-2 SIAC) last season after ending their campaign in a tough loss against Tuskegee, 20-50, in the western division showdown.
Also, the Benedict Tigers, picked to finish second within the conference, looks to prove themselves this season by opening up with a fairly new program with a Division II appearance under their belt, Florida Tech.
Under the leadership of SIAC legend Mike White, he took a team that finished 0-10 in 2015 to a 5-6 team in 2016. In 2017, the Tigers finished 7-2, with a 5-0 record at home.
Benedict finished last year’s season winning five straight games and was undefeated at home. The Tigers return 16 starters from last year’s team and will have continuity in quarterback Phillip Brown with the help of returning wide receivers Trini Charlton and Okechi Ntiasagwe.
North Dakota 35, Mississippi Valley State 7
Wagner 40, Bowie State 23
Mississippi College 31, Clark Atlanta 30
UAB 52, Savannah State 0
Campbell 49, Chowan 26
Pikeville 52, Livingstone 23
Wingate 36, Johnson C. Smith 0
University of Charleston 35, West Virginia State 31
Anthony McClean can be reached via email at email@example.com.