SWAC title game set for Jackson, Ms.

BCSP Editor

After a football season full of uncertainties brought on by a raging COVID-19 pandemic, the Southwestern Athletic Conference appears ready this Saturday to crown a champion.

Undefeated division winners – Arkansas-Pine Bluff from the West and Alabama A&M from the East – will bring an end to this unprecedented and unpredictable spring season when they meet Saturday at 2 p.m. in Jackson, Mississippi.

But the finale as it turns out could not come without another twist.

The two teams clinched their respective division titles two weeks ago and were scheduled to finish the regular season last Saturday in games that would have gone a long way to deciding which would host the title game. Instead, both teams had their games cancelled as their opponents were felled by COVID-19 protocols. Those cancellations brought the SWAC’s season total to 12 games cancelled.

Faced with a rather difficult and complicated tie-breaking procedure for hosting the game, conference officials and the two teams came to a compromise to play the game at a neutral site in Jackson’s spacious 55,000-seat Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium (See, HOW DID WE GET HERE).

 A battle of Undefeateds

To say it is a surprise to see Alabama A&M and Arkansas-Pine Bluff in the championship game is somewhat of an understatement. Each has just one title game appearance over the last decade.

In the East, six-time defending champion (and two-time defending SWAC champion) Alcorn State was expected to continue its dominance in the division when preseason picks were made back in the fall. But the Braves decided to opt out of the spring season just before it began in February. Additionally, the East had the long shadow of NFL legend Deion Sanders cast upon it when he was named the head coach at Jackson State in September.

But those things mattered little to Alabama A&M head coach Connell Maynor and his Bulldogs (4-0, 3-0 E). They returned the preseason offensive player on the year in senior quarterback Aqeel Glass and a strong nucleus on both sides of the ball.

Glass threw for over 1,000 yards in three games and a league-best 13 touchdowns while leading the league’s best offense (486.7 ypg.). Chief among his weapons has been a four-deep receiving corps led by Zabrian Moore (31.5yards per catch, 3 TDs) and Abdul-Fattai Ibrahim (18 rec., 277 yards, 3 TDs).

The defense, led by linebackers Armoni Holloway (20 tackles) and Quantravis Kelly (13 tackles) and defensive end Marcus Cushnie (4 sacks) held opponents to just 20.3 points per game.

One indication of their impending success was a dominant 31-7 win over defending MEAC co-champ South Carolina State to begin the season. Despite a month-long break between games, the Bulldogs came back to get big wins over Jackson State (52-43) and Alabama State (38-14) to claim the division crown.

Arkansas-Pine Bluff (4-0, 4-0 W) perhaps had an even bigger hurdle in getting past Southern and Grambling State who had won the division crown and represented the West in 17 of the 21 league title games, including the last seven. The Golden Lions additionally had to do it with a new head coach, Charles “Doc” Gamble, who replaced Cedric Thomas after last season.

But coming off its first winning season (6-5) since 2012, Gamble had plenty to build upon.

UAPB impressively got past Southern (33- 30) and Grambling (48-21) on the road to open the season and after a close win over Mississippi Valley State (24-17), clinched the division with a 36-31 win over Prairie View A&M.

After platooning the last two seasons, Skyler Perry became the starter at quarterback and only finished behind Glass in SWAC passing stats, throwing for 1,005 yards and 12 TDs. UAPB may be the only SWAC team that equals AA&M in receiving talent as Josh Wilkes (19 rec., 293 yds., 5 TDs), Tylin Ralph (20 rec., 275 yds.) and Harry Ballard III (18 rec., 253 yds., 3 TDs) are a formidable trio.

Linebackers Kolby Watts (29 tackles) and Isaac Peppers (5.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles) and DB Jalon Thigpen (4 interceptions) key a defense that led the league giving up just 108.8 rushing yards per game. The forecast calls for a 75-degree, sunny day for Saturday’s championship tilt. Expect the action on the field to be just as hot and heavy as each team comes in averaging 35.3 points per game. With so much attention on both teams’ vaunted passing attacks, the match up could hinge on who runs the ball better.