In predicted order of finish, as voted on by coaches and media in the conference preseason poll, with first-place votes in paretheses:
1. Alabama State (11)
2011: 8-3 (7-2 SWAC)
The Buzz: Former Georgia running back Isaiah Crowell arrives to give an instant boost to a Hornets running game that features QB Greg Jenkins (330 yards, 7 touchdowns) as its top returning rusher.
Key Issue: High expectations and tons of attention. The Hornets will be on national TV three times, and Crowell’s arrival clearly paints a target on Alabama State as the team to break out of last year’s logjam with Jackson State and Alabama A&M and win the SWAC East.
Did You Hear That? “Any time you can have one of the best running backs in the country, it’s great. It’s an added dimension.”
2. Jackson State (7)
2011: 9-2 (7-2 SWAC)
The Buzz: One name — defensive end Joseph LeBeau. He earned preseason SWAC defensive player of the year honors after terrorizing opposing defenses with 16 sacks and 24.5 tackles for loss last season.
Key Issue: Coach Rick Comegy says the Tigers will still employ their “Air Raid” offense, but doing so after losing record-setting QB Casey Therriualt and WRs Marcellos Wilder and Renty Rollins will be a huge challenge.
Did You Hear That? “They’re all in the mix, but you’ve got to start somewhere. I’m looking for one guy to be the leader.”
— Comegy on projected starting QB Dedric McDonald
3. Alabama A&M (7)
2011: 8-4 (7-2 SWAC)
The Buzz: A 16-15 loss to Grambling in December’s SWAC Championship Game has been fuel to the Bulldogs’ fire this offseason, as they try to take that final step to their first conference title since 2006.
Key Issue: Alabama A&M is the only SWAC team to return all 11 offensive starters, led by preseason first-team QB Deaunte Mason and RB Kaderious Lacey, but replacing four defensive starters is a concern.
Did You Hear That? “We got a taste of what it’s like to be in the championship game. We’re looking at this as another opportunity.”
— LB Vernon Marshall
4. Alcorn State (1)
2011: 2-8 (1-8 SWAC)
The Buzz: Former Ole Miss player and Memphis defensive coordinator Jay Hopson took over in May and made SWAC history as the conference’s first white head coach.
Key Issue: The Braves return their top rusher (preseason All-SWAC pick Arnold Walker), quarterback (Darius Smith) and receiver Terrance Lewis, but closing the yards gained/yards allowed gap is a must. Alcorn averaged 277.6 yards per game and gave up 381.0.
Did You Hear That? “I don’t want to make predictions because they never pan out. I want to see where we are at the end of the season, not before the season. It’s all about competing, not hoping to win.”
5. Mississippi Valley
2011: 1-10 (1-8 SWAC)
The Buzz: When your team has only one win the last two seasons, reasons for pessimism and optimism are both numerous. Coach Karl Morgan chooses to focus on the rebuilding process with 24 seniors, and a team that got closer to winning with four losses by seven points or less.
Key Issue: The offense, which averaged 14.7 points per game last season, simply must improve. The Delta Devils will try to run back to respectability behind the senior RB tandem of Trey Bateaste and Brandon Stansell.
Did You Hear That? “If this thing actually turns, there’s a book and a movie in it.”
PLAYER TO WATCH
DL: Joseph LeBeau, Sr., Jackson State
DL: Carlton Jones, Jr., Alabama State
DL: Ryan Love, Sr., Prairie View
DL: Devon Carter, So., Grambling
LB: Todd Wilcher, Sr., Jackson State
LB: Raheem Cardwell, Jr., Prairie View
LB: Jacarde Carter, Jr., Grambling
DB: Kejuan Riley, Sr., Alabama State
DB: Qua Cox, Sr., Jackson State
DB: Saeed Lee, Sr., Alabama State
DB: Vernon Marshall, Jr., Alabama A&M
P: Bobby Wenzig, Sr., Alabama State
DL: Leployer Franklin, Jr., Miss. Valley
DL: Johnathan Billups, Sr., Jackson State
DL: Jarvis Wilson, Jr., Prairie View
DL: Tim Tillman, Jr., Alabama A&M
LB: Bill Ross, Sr., Arkansas-Pine Bluff
LB: Brandon Slater, Jr., Alabama State
LB: Jer-ryan Harris, Jr., Arkansas-Pine Bluff
DB: Naquan Smith, Sr., Grambling
DB: Virgil Williams, Jr., Southern
DB: Casey Freeman, So., Alcorn State
DB: Tyree Hollins, So., Grambling
P: Fabian Carter, Sr., Grambling