FCS college football 2021: Southwestern Athletic Conference preview

NCAA Football

(Stats Perform) – Just thinking of the upcoming Southwestern Athletic Conference season is exhausting.

It’s that good even before it begins.

The SWAC has become a 12-member super conference for the HBCU level given the additions of Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M this summer to the likes of long-time powers such as Grambling State and Southern and the most-recent power, Alcorn State, which closed the last decade with two straight conference titles and four of the last six.

However, Bethune, FAMU and Alcorn all opted against playing during the 2020 season that was mostly delayed by the pandemic to this past spring. Alabama A&M, under coach Connell Maynor, went on to capture SWAC and black college national championships for the first time since 2006.

Every week of the regular season brings one huge game after another, and it all leads up to the only FCS conference championship game on Dec. 4 in Atlanta, with the winner returning two weeks later to face the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champion in the sixth annual Celebration Bowl.

Here’s a preview of the upcoming SWAC season:

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PREDICTED FINISH

(With Spring 2021 Season Record Unless Noted)

East Division

1. Florida A&M (2019: 9-2, 7-1 MEAC) – As the Rattlers replace all-time passing leader Ryan Stanley, it appears sophomore Rasean McKay will have the good fortune of passing to wide receivers Xavier Smith and Chad Hunter (a combined 206 receptions, 3,029 receiving yards and 27 touchdown catches in their careers). Coach Willie Simmons (15-7 at FAMU) went 21-11 at Prairie View A&M in the 2015-17 seasons.

2. Alabama A&M (5-0, 3-0 SWAC) – FAMU has an excellent duo at wide receiver, but AAMU quarterback Aqeel Glass would be quick to point out, and deliver the ball to, one of the two sets of FCS teammates who went over 1,000 receiving yards in the last full season of 2019, Zabrian Moore and Abdul Fatai-Ibrahim.

3. Jackson State (4-3, 3-2 SWAC) – It will be a family affair with second-year coach Deion Sanders’ sons Shedeur, a quarterback, and Shilo, a safety, in the lineup. During the spring, linebackers Andre Miller Jr. (10.2) and Keonte Hampton (9.5) ranked second and third in the SWAC respectively, in tackles per game.

4. Alabama State (3-3, 3-2 SWAC) – The Hornets face the newcomers, Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman, in their first two conference games. Sixth-year standout Ezra Gray has 3,318 career all-purpose yards.

5. Bethune-Cookman (2019: 7-4, 5-3 MEAC) – The Wildcats own a nine-game winning streak over rival Florida A&M, but they also enter their new conference with mostly new starters in the offensive skills positions.

6. Mississippi Valley State (1-3, 1-3 SWAC) – The Delta Devils continue to spin in rebuild mode, a mere 4-22 (one forfeit win) under fourth-year coach Vincent Dancy and 12-69 since 2013. Defensive end Jerry Garner (31.5 tackles for loss and 14.5 sacks in his career) is a one-man wrecking crew.

West Division

1. Southern (5-1, 4-1 SWAC) – Interim coach Jason Rollins was the defensive coordinator in the spring, when defensive end Jordan Lewis received the Stats Perform FCS Buck Buchanan Award. Quarterback Ladarius Skelton has an equal number of career rushing touchdowns (26) as scoring passes.

2. Alcorn State (2019: 9-4, 6-1 SWAC) – Coach Fred McNair has an undeniable offensive trio in quarterback Felix Harper, the SWAC’s 2019 offensive player of the year, running back Niko Duffey and wide receiver LeCharles Pringle, but the Braves lost 26 seniors after winning a second straight conference title and then star safety Qwynnterrio Cole to a grad transfer while they sat out last season.

3. Arkansas-Pine Bluff (4-1, 4-0 SWAC) – The Golden Lions were picked fifth in the division in the SWAC’s preseason poll and behind three programs they beat while winning the West during the spring. That’s motivation for a team already strong on the offensive line and in the skills positions, including quarterback Skyler Perry.

4. Prairie View A&M (2-1, 2-1 SWAC) – Quarterback Trazon Connley can spread the wealth: in three spring games, the Panthers had five receivers over 100 yards (with a sixth at 98 yards). Dating to 2019, eight of their last nine conference games have been decided by seven points or less.

5. Grambling State (0-4, 0-4 SWAC) – After posting three straight unbeaten SWAC regular seasons with two championship game wins between 2015-17, the Tigers are 8-10 since then. A positive for moving forward: coach Broderick Fobbs utilized many players during the winless spring campaign.

6. Texas Southern (1-2, 1-2 SWAC) – The Tigers were credited with a forfeit win over Alcorn State in the spring, but coach Clarence McKinney is 0-13 on the field. However, in two spring games, his team dropped its 2019 FCS-worst averages in total defense (553.5 yards per game) and scoring defense (45.5 points per game) to 389 and 35.5, respectively.

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PRESEASON OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF YEAR

Alabama A&M quarterback Aqeel Glass – The SWAC’s preseason selection seeks to repeat his spring postseason award. He enters his final campaign ranked No. 1 among active FCS signal callers in completions (664) and attempts (1,168), and No. 2 in passing yards (8,568), passing yards per game (238) and TD passes (73).

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PRESEASON DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF YEAR

Southern defensive end Jordan Lewis – The first SWAC player to win the Buck Buchanan Award, Lewis needed only five games in the spring season to rank No. 1 nationally in tackles for loss (15), tackles for loss per game (3.0), tackle yardage for loss (82), sacks (10.5), sacks per game (2.1) and sack yardage (73).

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2022 NFL PROSPECT

Florida A&M safety Markquese Bell – A day 3 prospect, the former Maryland player has good size (6-foot-2, 205 pounds) and a disruptive style against the run and pass. In his first season at FAMU in 2019, he totalled 61 tackles, five interceptions – the most at FAMU in eight years – nine pass breakups and two forced fumbles.

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FAST FACT

Including the “classic” games that are played at large stadiums in neutral locations, the SWAC has led FCS conferences in attendance in 43 of the last 44 seasons.

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X-FACTOR

Winning home games is imperative given new campuses and potentially longer travel, and all the talented, veteran-laden teams that are playing in larger divisions.

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3 MUST-SEE GAMES

Jackson State vs. Florida A&M (Sept. 5) – Florida A&M’s opening-week welcoming to the SWAC comes from Coach Prime and with an ESPN2 spotlight at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens.

Alcorn State at Southern (Oct. 30) – Three of Alcorn’s four wins in the SWAC Championship Game came against Southern in 2014, ’18 and ’19. Now the two powers are paired together in the West Division.

Alabama A&M vs. Alabama State (Oct. 30) – A&M owns a three-game winning streak in the Magic City Classic. The rivalry with Alabama State began in 1924 and annually draws over 60,000 fans to Legion Field in Birmingham.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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