College Football

Southwestern Athletic Conference offseason glance

By CRAIG HALEY

Stats Perform FCS Senior Editor

(Stats Perform) - Quick, name all the teams besides Alcorn State in the Southwestern Athletic Conference's East Division to win a prize.

It's getting harder to do that with each season - tongue in cheek - because Alcorn has run off six straight East titles, plus four SWAC championships, in that time.

But the Braves are being hit hard by graduation in a year Alabama A&M, Alabama State and Jackson State are gaining momentum again. Alcorn should be tested in the division by each team except struggling Mississippi Valley State.

The East champ will face the West champ - which has been Southern the last two seasons - on Dec. 5. That winner will advance to the Celebration Bowl two weeks later.

Following is an offseason glance at the SWAC. The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted activities across college campuses, shutting many down to help address the worldwide emergency.

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EAST DIVISION

ALABAMA A&M

HEAD COACH: Connell Maynor (13-10, two seasons; 78-41 overall)

2019 RECORD: 7-5, 4-3 SWAC East (Tie/2nd)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 14 (8 offense/6 defense)

PRIORITIES: Replace 1,400-yard running back Jordan Bentley, perhaps with Coastal Carolina transfer Antonio Robinson. Improve defensively against the run.

NOTABLE: Maynor has settled in nicely with the Aggies, who have overcome five straight losing seasons with back-to-back winning records. Aqeel Glass has been the top passer in the SWAC in both seasons, and this year he gets back his two-year 1,000-yard wide receivers, Zabrian Moore and Abdul-Fatai Ibrahim, as well as 2018 standout Brian Jenkins Jr. from injury. The defense ranked ninth in the conference and seeks improvement behind first-team all-conference defensive end Marcus Cushine and linebacker Armoni Holloway, who was named first-team all-conference two years ago.

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ALABAMA STATE

HEAD COACH: Donald Hill-Eley (14-14, three seasons; 73-90 overall)

2019 RECORD: 5-6, 4-3 SWAC East (Tie/2nd)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 15 (6 offense/9 defense)

PRIORITIES: Lift the SWAC's lowest-ranked rushing offense. Take bigger steps in the second season under coordinators Joe Blackwell (offense) and Travis Pearson (defense).

NOTABLE: Wins over Alcorn State in 2018 and Grambling State last year reflect the possibilities for Alabama State, which returns a lot of depth in its two-deep. Included are veterans in the offensive skills positions, led by rising senior quarterback KHA'Darris Davis. Surprisingly, the Hornets led the SWAC in time of possession despite having the sluggish run game. Nose guard Christian Clark is the leader of an experienced defense. The special teams must find replacements for punter Anthony Craven and return specialist Ezra Gray. The Hornets appear primed for their first winning season since finishing 6-5 in 2015.

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ALCORN STATE

HEAD COACH: Fred McNair (30-19, four seasons)

2019 RECORD: 9-4, 6-1 SWAC East (1st)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 10 (4 offense/6 defense)

PRIORITIES: Replace four of the five starting offensive linemen and three of the four starting defensive linemen. Replace Corey McCullough, the place-kicker and punter for three straight seasons.

NOTABLE: With the loss of a 26-member senior class, the Braves will find it hard to repeat in the East Division let alone claim a third straight SWAC title in their 100th season of football. While the O-line has a lot of development ahead, the offense still boasts highly productive standouts with quarterback Felix Harper, who was named the SWAC's offensive player of the year, running back Niko Duffey and wide receiver LeCharles Pringle. Senior defensive backs Qwynnterrio Cole and Juwan Taylor will anchor a defense that led the FCS in turnovers forced (36). Alcorn will carry a 10-game home winning streak into the 2020 season.

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JACKSON STATE

HEAD COACH: John Hendrick (6-9, two seasons; 24-34 overall)

2019 RECORD: 4-8, 3-4 SWAC East (4th)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 16 (8 offense/8 defense)

PRIORITIES: Develop the system and improve the passing offense under new offensive coordinator T.C. Taylor. Get stronger against the run after ranking ninth in the SWAC.

NOTABLE: The Tigers had a young team last season and lost only a couple key seniors. The young standouts included linebacker Keonte Hampton, who led the SWAC in tackles (121) as a sophomore and was named defensive player of the year. The offense was eventually turned over to quarterback Jalon Jones, who seeks to break out as a junior. Key wide receiver DD Bowie has left the program, but leading rusher Keshawn Harper and wide receivers Warren Newman and Daniel Crowell - all seniors - will help take Jones to a higher level of play. The O-line, though, seeks to allow fewer sacks (40).

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MISSISSIPPI VALLEY STATE

HEAD COACH: Vincent Dancy (3-19, two seasons)

2019 RECORD: 2-9, 1-6 SWAC East (5th)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: N/A

PRIORITIES: Address the lack of a winning culture considering MVSU is 11-66 in the last seven seasons. Improve offensively after ranking last in the SWAC in points and yards.

NOTABLE: The Delta Devils have to survive a difficult start to the season: nonconference trips to Southland powers Nicholls and Sam Houston State and the home opener against Alcorn State. In his third season, Dancy needs his recruiting classes to pay off and for the offense and defense to improve with executing plays. Rising senior defensive end/outside linebacker Jerry Garner will set the tone as the team's best player. MVSU is the only FCS scholarship program that has not announced its 2020 recruiting class.

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WEST DIVISION

ARKANSAS-PINE BLUFF

INTERIM HEAD COACH: Doc Gamble (first season)

2019 RECORD: 6-5, 3-4 SWAC West (4th)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 15 (8 offense/7 defense)

PRIORITIES: Replace the production of two-time 1,000-yard rusher Taeyler Porter, seemingly with a healthier Keshawn Williams. Improve the pass defense.

NOTABLE: Former coach Cedric Thomas departed in mid-February, but there's continuity with Gamble (who's in his third year on staff) and the return of last year's team nucleus. Two experienced quarterbacks return with Shannon Patrick, who was plagued by interceptions, and Skyler Perry, and they'll still be protected by All-SWAC offensive linemen Mark Evans II and Atondre Smith. The Lions also boast a standout wide receivers duos in Harry Ballard and Dejuan Miller. The defense was particularly strong against the run, ranking third in the conference.

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GRAMBLING STATE

HEAD COACH: Broderick Fobbs (50-21, six seasons)

2019 RECORD: 6-5, 4-3 SWAC West (Tie/2nd)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 15 (6 offense/9 defense)

PRIORITIES: Crisper play by cutting down the penalties. Improve the place-kicking.

NOTABLE: Dual-threat quarterback Geremy Hickbottom continues to get better as he heads into his senior season, and a wealth of offensive weapons return around him, so the Tigers will be improved offensively. Plus, they're bound to be healthier after missing some key players in the two-deep. The defense had depth last season, but it is replacing some of the more productive players. The Tigers will kick off the 2020 schedule with their third appearance in the MEAC-SWAC Challenge, taking on South Carolina State. For the third straight season, they will play only three times on campus.

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PRAIRIE VIEW A&M

HEAD COACH: Eric Dooley (11-11, two seasons)

2019 RECORD: 6-5, 4-3 SWAC West (Tie/2nd)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 17 (8 offense/9 defense)

PRIORITIES: Replace the longtime production of quarterback Jalen Morton and running back Dawonya Tucker. Get better on special teams, especially with place-kicking and punting.

NOTABLE: The Panthers underachieved last season, although their three conference losses were by a combined 13 points, so they weren't far off. Quarterback Trazon Connley averaged over 313 yards of total offense and passed for six touchdowns in the final three games last season, while Ahmad Antoine and Kristian Mosley have the inside track to replacing Tucker. The defensive line needs retooling, but the back seven is strong, including Jaylen Harris (four interceptions, 14 pass breakups) coming off a huge junior campaign.

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SOUTHERN

HEAD COACH: Dawson Odums (58-34, eight seasons)

2019 RECORD: 8-5, 6-1 SWAC West (1st)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 14 (6 offense/8 defense)

PRIORITIES: Replenishing on the offensive and defensive lines. Continue to improve against the pass.

NOTABLE: The Jaguars have dropped two straight SWAC championship games to Alcorn State and are 1-9 against the East power under Odums while dominating much of the rest of the conference. The Jaguars topped the conference in rushing offense and defense last season. Quarterback Ladarius Skelton tends to get hot at the right time of the season, and all the key skills position players, including running back Devon Benn, are back. Pass rusher Jordan Lewis is a key returnee to the defensive line and cornerback Tamaurice Smith is the team's best defender in coverage.

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TEXAS SOUTHERN

HEAD COACH: Clarence McKinney (0-11, one season)

2019 RECORD: 0-11, 0-7 SWAC West (5th)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 16 (8 offense/8 defense)

PRIORITIES: Make major improvements defensively. Learning to win in McKinney's second season.

NOTABLE: Texas Southern joined Long Island as the only FCS programs to go winless in 2019, but a second season running the offensive and defensive schemes suggests improvement by the veteran lineup. Middle linebacker Julian Marcantel returns to the lineup after he was hurt in the season opener. During his absence, the Tigers fell to last in the FCS in total defense, allowing 553.5 yards per game, and scoring defense at 45.5 points per game. Rising senior quarterback Devin Williams had a solid run midseason, while Donnie Corley was the SWAC's newcomer of the year as a 1,000-yard receiver.

Updated March 13, 2020

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