The poll released at Southwestern Conference Media Day on July 16 represented one of the last gasps of speculation that fuels football fans during the offseason, but a few coaches in the room were happy to use it for their purposes as well.
Southern coach Stump Mitchell, whose Jaguars were picked fourth in the five-team SWAC West, made extra sure his players saw that prediction, and it made an impact.
“It brings up a bit of anger inside of me because I know we shouldn’t be in this position,” defensive tackle Casey Narcisse said. “But we got ourselves here, and all we have to do is get in a dog fight and win it all out so six months later we’ll be crowned champs.”
Though the first punches in that fight are a little more than a month away, the SWAC’s teams will begin lacing up their gloves in the next few days.
With the exception of Texas Southern, which will hold its first practice on Aug. 6, every team in the conference will take the field for fall camp in the next week, and each one will do so with its own reasons for motivation.
For defending champion Grambling, the preseason polls affirmed its place atop the conference, and the mission is to stay there.
The Tigers took home 20 of 25 first-place votes, and after winning two of the last four conference titles and six of 13 since the conference moved to a championship game format, they feel they’re in their rightful place, with the rest of the league chasing them.
“Everybody has that old bull’s-eye on our back. Everybody wants a shot at Grambling,” coach Doug Williams said. “Having played at Grambling and coached at Grambling, to come to Grambling with any other expectation (besides a title), I don’t think that would be fair.”
The best hope to dethrone Grambling might come from Alabama State, which was picked to win the East. After finishing in a three-way tie for the division last year, bringing back senior quarterback Greg Jenkins and one of the SWAC’s best defensive players in safety Kejuan Riley, the Hornets already figured to be a title contender.
They then went and made one of the biggest offseason pickups in college football, taking in troubled running back Isaiah Crowell, the 2011 Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year before legal troubles ended his career at Georgia.
“Any time you can have one of the best running backs in the country, it’s great,” Jenkins said. “It’s an added dimension.”
Tack on the facts that ASU opens the season on ESPN, will play two more games on ESPNU and will christen a brand new stadium for its final home game, and there are many reasons for optimism.
But that doesn’t mean the East is a cakewalk. Alabama A&M, who won the division last year, and Jackson State, the final member of that three-way tie, will certainly provide plenty of opposition.
The only SWAC team to return all of its starters on offense — including 1,000-yard running back Kaderius Lacey — A&M has a good shot at returning to the title game, which it lost 16-15 after Grambling returned a fourth-quarter fumble 66 yards for a touchdown.
At Jackson State, the big question mark is replacing record-setting quarterback Casey Therriault. A whopping four quarterbacks will vie for that honor during fall camp: senior Dedric McDonald, sophomore Tevin Chapman, junior Mark Thigpen and Clayton Moore, a former Ole Miss signee who transferred to JSU after starting every game for Akron last year.
“He makes that race the way it should be, highly competitive,” coach Rick Comegy told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. “That’s what I was looking for coming into camp, a highly-competitive race with some guys that are good athletes and that can really help us win football games.”
After that top three, it’s up to Alcorn State — behind the league’s first-ever white head coach in Jay Hopson — and Mississippi Valley State to pull some upsets.
Both squads would be long shots, especially MVSU, which is 1-17 in its last two seasons of SWAC games.
“If this thing actually turns, there’s a book and a movie in it,” Delta Devils coach Karl Morgan joked at media day.
Back over in the West, there’s more of a balanced picture behind Grambling.
Texas Southern welcomes in new coach Darrell Asberry — a Baton Rouge native — and a new stadium, but NCAA penalties for poor academic performance mean the Tigers will be playing for pride rather than a SWAC title.
Besides TSU, just about any team has a chance to win the division.
Prairie View was the only West team to beat Grambling last season, and returning nine starters to the SWAC’s top rushing offense made the Panthers the No. 2 preseason choice behind the Tigers.
Like PV, Arkansas-Pine Bluff returns a host of key players and will be focused on fine-tuning during fall camp. The Golden Lions were picked third, after coming just seven points (a loss to Grambling) from a trip to the title game in 2011.
And that leaves Southern.
Entering Mitchell’s all-important third year, which will decide whether he gets a contract extension, the Jaguars are hoping that a rigorous offseason conditioning program, better discipline and the motivation of 2-9 and 4-7 seasons will spark a turnaround.
The marquee battle during fall camp is between quarterbacks Dray Joseph and J.P. Douglas, who split time last year. Joseph has the upper hand headed into camp, and Mitchell said that whoever wins the job will have it to himself, rather than rotating in and out.
Settling on a signal-caller is one of the most critical areas for an SU team that Mitchell says is the best he’s had at Southern.
“These guys have been working incredibly hard, harder than ever in my first two years here,” Mitchell said. “They’re in the best shape they could possibly be in, and with that comes high expectations. They’ve put in the work to expect great things from themselves.”
There’s time for a little more work before predictions meet reality.
This week, the countdown clock starts ticking.