LUT WILLIAMS, BCSP Editor
Two teams trying to re-assert themselves as contenders in their respective conferences highlight the kickoff this weekend of what should be an exciting and enticing 2021 black college football season.
North Carolina Central of the Mid Eastern Athletic Conference and Alcorn State of the Southwestern Athletic Conference square off Saturday in Atlanta (7 p.m.) representing their respective conferences in the 15th annual MEAC/SWAC Challenge. The game will be carried live on ESPN.
The Challenge is one of three HBCU classics scheduled this Saturday in a week dubbed “Week Zero” in the 2021 fall season.
The others are the Classic for Columbus, an SIAC battle between Kentucky State and Central State in Columbus, Ohio (2 p.m., ESPNU) and the Big Cat Classic in Jacksonville, Florida (4 p.m.) that matches Edward Waters against Florida Memorial.
New challenges for both teams
The annual MEAC/SWAC Challenge has been dominated by the MEAC who holds a 10-4 edge in the annual opener between the two HBCU Div. I conferences that compete on the FCS level in football.
Both Alcorn State and North Carolina Central sat out the abbreviated spring 2021 season but had different but eerily similar outcomes the last time they took the field.
NCCU finished 4-8, 3-5 in the MEAC in 2019 in head coach Trei Oliver’s first year leading the Eagles. They ended on a sour note losing to then top MEAC rival North Carolina A&T 54-0 to close out the season.
Conversely, Alcorn State, in head coach Fred McNair’s fourth season in 2019, finished 9-4 overall, 6-1 in the conference en route to winning its sixth straight SWAC East Division title and getting its second straight win in the SWAC Championship Game.
The Braves however ended their season just like the Eagles, being handily defeated by the same N. C. A&T team, the MEAC champions, 64-44 in the season-ending Celebration Bowl in Atlanta.
The landscape in both conferences has changed drastically since then.
Alcorn State’s plight and task
Alcorn State is no longer in the SWAC’s East Division. They were shifted to the West Division in the wake of Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M leaving the MEAC to join the SWAC and being placed in the East.
Additionally, the sit-out in the spring enabled former East rival Alabama A&M to capture the division and SWAC championship (over West champion Arkansas-Pine Bluff).
McNair’s charge is to now establish Alcorn State’s dominance in the West over the likes of division members Southern, Grambling State, Prairie View A&M, Texas Southern and 2021 spring winner Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
The move West does not faze McNair.
“I don’t think it will be a challenge,” he said nearly a month ago at the SWAC Media Day in Birmingham.
“We’ve played Prairie View, we’ve played
Grambling, we’ve played Southern anyway while we were in the East. I didn’t have any issue with that. It’s just the nature of football. You just show up every Saturday with a game plan ready to play.”
NCCU’s plight and task
Meantime, NCCU’s nemesis and rival North Carolina A&T also left the MEAC deciding to move to the Big South Conference. The Aggies had won three straight MEAC titles and represented the league in the Celebration Bowl in four of the five times it has been played.
The move of the three schools away from the MEAC reduces the league from nine football playing institutions to six. The result has moved NCCU up the food chain in the conference and reduced the hurdles along the way.
Oliver wants everyone to remember that in the years 2014 to 2016 under Jerry Mack, NCCU was a major obstacle to NC A&T’s dominance in the MEAC. The Eagles defeated the Aggies three straight times during that period and shared the MEAC title with them in 2014 and 2015 before winning it outright in 2016.
Oliver is primed to get the Eagles back to that elite status in the MEAC.
“Those are the expectations of myself, our fan base and our administration” he said at the MEAC Media Day. “That’s why we play the games is to win championships. Our vision hasn’t changed, our thought process or mindset hasn’t changed no matters who’s in the conference.”
The match up
Saturday’s game will match up an experienced Alcorn State team used to winning and dominating its opposition with a young NCCU squad searching for its identity.
The Braves return senior quarterback Felix Harper. The last time the slender (5-11, 180) lefthander took the field in 2019, he won the SWAC’s offensive player of the year award. He threw for almost 3,000 yards (2,954) with 33 passing TDs and just nine interceptions.
Redshirt junior LeCharles Pringle (6-0, 185) was a prolific target for Harper hauling in 48 passes for 828 yards and a league-best 14 receiving TDs. Pringle averaged 17.2 yards per catch. Niko Duffey is a sophomore running back who ran for 883 yards and six scores as a freshman in 2019.
But other than those three prominent names, the Braves graduated a lot of their top players and have a lot of unknowns on both sides of the ball.
performed admirably as a freshman in 2019 throwing for 2,220 yards, 12 TDs with nine interceptions while completing 51.8% of his passes. Oliver says the game has slowed down for him and he has a better handle on the offense. The coach said in a Zoom call Monday that Richard will start on Saturday.
The Eagles’ mainstay on offense is senior running back Isaiah Totten who ran for 636 yards in 2019 and has rung up over 2,000 rushing yards in his career. Oliver said the Eagles have a stable of running backs that should compliment Totten. He is also high on a receiving corps that returns its top four pass catchers from 2019.
“We should be explosive on offense,” said Oliver.
Debuts all around
The Central State/Kentucky State match up in Columbus and the Florida Memorial/Edward Waters date in Jacksonville will represent debuts of different kinds.
In Columbus Saturday, CSU head coach Bobby Rome makes his debut on the sidelines for the Marauders. Rome was hired in February of 2020 but did not put his team on the field in the 2020 fall or 2021 spring seasons.
“The Classic for Columbus is a great opportunity for us to return to action in a world- class venue,” Rome said. “Central State is a program and a university that’s on the rise and we look forward to kicking off our season on August 28th in Ohio Stadium.”
KSU head coach Charlie Jackson led the Thorobreds to a 7-3 record in 2019, his first season, that included wins over Jackson State of the SWAC (33-25 at the Circle City Classic) and wins in five of their final six games. The team had finished 0-10 in 2018. The ‘Breds could be a sleeper pick in the SIAC.
The Cat Classic in Jacksonville has the debut of new Edward Waters head coach Toriano Morgan who was hired in April 2021 and has brought in former Bethune-Cookman and Alabama State head coach Brian Jenkins Sr. as his assistant head coach, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. The Tigers will debut as official members of SIAC this season.
Florida Memorial returned to football in 2020 after a 62-year hiatus. The team finished 0-3 before shutting it down because of the pandemic. South Florida high school legend Timothy Harris Sr. leads the FMU Lions as head coach.
Harris, who had two stints on the staff of the Miami Hurricanes, was 114-21 over nine seasons and won three state championships as a high school coach.