1) Can Pine Bluff buck history and repeat?
Arkansas-Pine Bluff enters its pursuit of a second straight SWAC championship armed with 18 returning starters, including the quarterback (Ben Anderson) who made first-team all-conference last year. But history says the Golden Lions will have their hands full. Over the past 10 years, only Grambling has won multiple SWAC championships, and the league hasn’t seen a back-to-back winner since the Tigers won three straight titles from 2000-02. UAPB had not won a SWAC title since 1966, becoming the conference’s third champion in four years to break a dry spell of over four decades. Prairie View (2009) and Texas Southern (2010) had not won conference titles since the 1960s as well.
2) What will Houston bring to the title game?
The unofficial start of the SWAC football season still begins in Birmingham with Media Day, but the season’s official closing act no longer resides there. For the first time since the SWAC went to divisional play and introduced its conference title game in 1999, the East and West champs will not meet at Legion Field in Birmingham. Instead, the championship game is moving to Reliant Stadium in Houston. The move not only provides the SWAC an NFL venue in which to crown its champion but also makes Houston the home of the conference’s biggest three sporting events. Both the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments will be held in the Bayou City to boot.
3) Can Southern snap out of its doldrums?
Southern football once dominated the SWAC, winning five league titles and four black college national championships from 1993-2003. But the Jaguars haven’t hoisted the SWAC trophy in 10 seasons and haven’t advanced to the SWAC title game in nine. Southern’s most recent winning season was in 2009. New coach Dawson Odums, who finished 2012 as the interim, has eight starters back on offense and seven on defense. Although division rival UAPB likely will be picked to win the conference, Southern again must be considered a contender for SWAC hardware.
4) Is offense more than just a passing fancy?
The SWAC has star power at the game’s marquee position, thanks to the return of Anderson at UAPB and Dray Joseph at Southern. Joseph won the league’s passing title last season in his first year as a full-time starter, and Anderson earned first-team All-SWAC recognition for his ability to beat opponents through the air (2,346 passing yards) and on the ground (519 rushing yards). Clayton Moore also returns after leading Jackson State to the SWAC title game in his first time starting. So does D’Auntre Smiley, who as a freshman at Prairie View was the league’s fourth-leading passer.
5) What can Isaiah Crowell do in Round 2?
After being booted from the team at Georgia following an arrest on felony weapons charges, Crowell gave Alabama State the kind of lift last year you’d expect of a former five-star recruit. The junior returns to the Hornets looking to build on a season in which he rushed for 842 yards and led the SWAC with 15 rushing touchdowns. He’s the kind of talent sure to generate a buzz far from Alabama State’s new $62 million home field.
Coach: Anthony Jones
Players: WR Montaurius Smith, FS A.J. Clark
Easy to answer: Jones won’t simply be using coachspeak when he talks about how much competition he expects during training camp. Alabama A&M has little experience returning from last year and must replace 23 seniors.
Tough to say: Jones has made A&M a consistent contender in the SWAC, but the veteran coach hasn’t had to replace a combination of players like quarterback Deaunte Mason and running back Kaderius Lacey, both seniors last year. Lacey is the school’s all-time leading rusher, and Mason led A&M to the Eastern Division title and earned second-team All-SWAC as a junior.
Follow along: @aamuedu (Alabama A&M University)
Coach: Reggie Barlow
Players: C Edmund Davis, DE Carson Jones
Easy to answer: Isaiah Crowell was the SWAC’s top newcomer last year, rushing for 842 yards and 15 touchdowns after being kicked off the team at Georgia following an arrest on felony weapons charges. That kind of production as a sophomore makes it easy for Barlow to justify giving the erstwhile five-star recruit a chance to start anew.
Tough to say: Alabama State has tied for the Eastern Division title each of the past three years, but only once during that stretch have the Hornets reached the SWAC title game. Whether the Hornets break through could depend on how much much production they get from an unproven quarterback, either 2012 backup Daniel Duhart or Southern Miss transfer Arsenio Favor.
Follow along: @ASUBuzz (Alabama State athletics)
Coach: Jay Hopson
Players: RB Arnold Walker, DB Jamison Knox
Easy to answer: Alcorn should be every bit as good against the pass this year after ranking fourth in the FCS in pass defense last season. Three starters return in the secondary, and Hopson has added four DB recruits who measure 6-foot-1 or taller.
Tough to say: The Braves doubled their win total from 2011 in Hopson’s first year. Walker returns as the leading rusher, but Hopson must get better results up front for Alcorn to become a contender.
Follow along: @TeamKnox22 (Knox), @ASUBraves (Alcorn State athletics)
Coach: Monte Coleman
Players: WR Ladarius Eckwood, LB Jer-ryan Harris
Easy to answer: The Golden Lions have a whopping 17 starters back, but the FCS sacks leader (defensive end Brandon Thurmond), the SWAC’s leading tackler (middle linebacker Bill Ross) and a third-round draft pick (offensive tackle Terron Armstead of the Saints) are among the key losses. So Coleman, whose UAPB team won 10 games last year, won’t have a hard time convincing the media that winning the SWAC for the second straight season will be a challenge.
Tough to say: Logic says UAPB should be considered the team to beat. History says no. Grambling has won three SWAC championships in the past 10 years, but no other school in the conference has won more than one. No team has won consecutive conference titles since Grambling’s threepeat in 2000, ’01 and ’02.
Follow along: @UAPBAthletics (UAPB athletics)
Coach: Doug Williams
Players: OL Clint Marsh, DB Tyree Hollins
Easy to answer: The best thing that may have happened for Grambling is its players got a year older. The Tigers had merely 18 juniors and seniors — only 10 of them starters — during last year’s 1-10 nightmare.
Tough to say: If the Tigers hope to get back to their championship ways, they must fix a defense that ranked seventh last year in scoring defense and eighth in total defense.
Follow along: @GSU_Tigers (Grambling sports information)e_SClBJACKSON STATE
Coach: Rick Comegy
Players: RB Rakeem Sims, CB Qua Cox
Easy to answer: Comegy has a team that enters 2013 on a high after winning five straight games to reach the SWAC championship game, where the Tigers were beaten in overtime. Clayton Moore returns under center after getting his feet wet as a first-time starter.
Tough to say: But the Tigers lost stalwarts Jonathan Billups and Joseph LeBeau on the defensive line, as well as 1,000-yard receiver Rico Richardson. For the Tigers to repeat their 2012 success, they must do so with a team that returns only 10 starters.
Follow along: @Qua_CoxJSU20 (Cox), @JacksonStateU (Jackson State University)
MISSISSIPPI VALLEY STATE
Coach: Karl Morgan
Players: WR Julian Stafford, DE Robert Simpson
Easy to answer: Morgan can point to last year’s success as an indication the Delta Devils are trending upward. Valley swept Southern and Grambling for the first time since Jerry Rice wore the school colors, finished 5-6 after going 1-23 in its previous 24 games and lost three games by single digits. The defense was the stingiest in the SWAC.
Tough to say: Simpson is the top returning pass-rusher in the SWAC and one of the league’s most feared defenders, but Morgan must replace seven starters off a unit that held opponents to 279.2 yards per game last year. Also, the offense is without its starting quarterback and top two rushers from last season.
Follow along: @karlmorgan1 (Morgan), @MVSUDevilsports (MVSU athletics)
Coach: Heishma Northern
Players: OL Tre Glover, LB Jerome Howard
Easy to answer: When asked about rebounding from two lackluster seasons, Northern can point to sophomore quarterback D’Auntre Smiley as reason for optimism. Smiley had 1,419 passing yards and 367 rushing as a freshman, making him a candidate to become this year’s breakout star.
Tough to say: This has to be seen as a pivotal year for Northern, whose two losing seasons were the first for the program since 2006. Over the final four seasons of the Henry Frazier era, the Panthers went 32-9 with one SWAC title.
Follow along: @PVAthletics (Prairie View athletics)
Coach: Dawson Odums
Players: QB Dray Joseph, DB Virgil Williams
Easy to answer: Only a year after Joseph entered fall camp in a battle for the starting job, Odums will have no trouble identifying the senior out of West St. John as the focal point of the offense. Joseph not only distinguished himself as the right man for the job last year, he also led the SWAC in passing.
Tough to say: Sylvester Nzekwe had three 100-yard games late last season, igniting a running game that went the first seven games without a 100-yard rusher. But Nzekwe and Jerry Joseph have moved on, leaving the untested trio of Darrus Coleman, junior Terence Clayton and redshirt freshman Lenard Tillery to battle for carries. One must emerge to give Southern’s offense balance.
Follow along: @Coach_Odums
(Odums), @Jag_Me_Out (Athletic Director William Broussard), @SouthernUsports (Southern athletics)
Coach: Darrell Asberry
Players: TE Billy Rosenberg, LB Jarius Moore
Easy to answer: Little wonder Texas Southern finished last in the SWAC last year in total offense and yards per game, given its top three quarterbacks were lost to injury early in the season. Former Brusly standoff Jay Christophe leads a long list of newcomers who will have a chance to help Asberry, a former Jackson State quarterback, get the offense going.
Tough to say: Asberry took over a program that was ineligible for the postseason last year because of APR issues and will not be part of the postseason for two more years because of NCAA infractions. Motivation for this bunch has to be a concern.
Follow along: @TeamTSU (Texas Southern athletics)