Full slate dampened by one cancellation


Jackson State University Head Football Coach Deion Sanders

The Delta Variant strain of the COVID-19 virus has claimed its first victim of the 2021 black college football season.

It was announced Monday night that because of an outbreak involving members of the UNC-Pembroke team, its game scheduled for 6 p.m. Saturday at Winston-Salem State has been cancelled.

The news is a sobering reminder that as anxious as both players and fans are to get on with a ‘regular’ season, there is still a need for caution. The pandemic is far from over.

The game will not be rescheduled.

The news also puts somewhat of a damper on what was a great start to the 2021 season as three Classics lived up to their billing this past weekend dubbed ‘Week Zero’ (see SCORES).

The show goes on?
A full slate of 33 games (minus one) are on tap in Week One with now half (16) games slated to be shown on TV or streamed over the internet.

The match ups stretch from Thursday through Sunday and include a host of key games that will be for some teams early indicators of the trajectory of the season.

Perhaps no game is more anticipated that Sunday’s battle at the Orange Blossom Classic in Miami (3 p.m. on ESPN2) between Jackson State and Florida A&M.

JSU head coach Deion (Coach Prime) Sanders and his team have been the center of attention during the offseason, making headlines for everything from his haul of Div. I transfers to walking out of SWAC Media Day (he didn’t) to his freshman son Shadeur Sanders starting at quarterback.

All of that attention will be put to the test by Willie Simmons’ Rattlers, who the last time they took the field in 2019 had a better record than that year’s BCSP national champion North Carolina A&T and defeated the Aggies in a head-to-head duel.

That was then, this is now.

Both JSU, who finished 4-8 overall and 3-4 in the SWAC in 2019, and FAMU, who finished 9-2 overall and 7-1 in the MEAC, have changed.

Sanders took over at JSU last September and has revamped everything from the Tigers’ look, their facilities, their roster and their expectations. After finishing just 3-3 in games played under Sanders in the spring the Tigers appear poised to change a narrative that has seen them go seven years without an East Division or SWAC title.

Sanders vowed in the spring “you’d better get me now” before he brought in a host of new recruits that he said would change prospects at JSU.

The changes at FAMU are just as dramatic. The Rattlers left the MEAC after almost 40 years to become the 11th member of the SWAC. They were predictably placed in the league’s East Division putting them on a collision course with, among others, JSU and the 2021 spring champion, Alabama A&M.

FAMU did not play in the spring meaning what they will bring to the table could be just as surprising as what JSU brings.

The bottom line is there are a lot of unknowns for both teams that will be known Sunday afterthis early SWAC East Division showdown.

I can’t wait.

More intrigue?
Another Sunday opener full of intrigue is the Black College Hall of Fame Classic in Canton, Ohio’s Tom Benson Stadium pitting historic black college football powers Grambling State against Tennessee State (4 p.m. ET, NFL Network).

The game is the first for new TSU head coach Eddie George, the former NFL all-pro running back and his star-studded cast of assistants including former NFL head coach Hue Jackson (offensive coordinator) and former NFL all-pro lineman Clyde Simmons (defensive line).

TSU finished 2-5 in the spring and 3-9 in 2019 (2-6 in the OVC) under departed head coach Rod Reed who posted a 58-61 record in 11 seasons. George, who was a guest and celebrity picker on ESPN’s College Gameday Saturday, and his cohorts are expected to breathe new life into the Blue Tigers who have not been serious contenders for Ohio Valley Conference honors since Reed took them to the FCS playoffs in 2013.

The G-Men are led by eighth-year head coach Broderic Fobbs coming off a winless (0- 4) spring. The Tigers’ 49-7 loss to rival Southern in their traditional season-ending Bayou Classic was perhaps the toughest to swallow. GSU also lost to fellow West Division members Arkansas-Pine Bluff (48-21) and Prairie View A&M (17-10) as well as to Sanders’ first JSU team (33-28).

Fobbs, who was credited with rescuing Grambling from a deep hole when he took over in 2013, is now facing some questioning about his ability to keep the Tigers as contenders. After winning back-to-back SWAC titles in 2017 and 2018, Grambling is 8-10 under Fobbs vs. SWAC competition over the last three campaigns.

Both teams have a lot of question marks that will begin to be answered Sunday. Though it’s early, whether the arrow is pointing up or down for these two programs could be hanging in the balance.

Watch out for TSU sophomore running back Devon Starling (648 yards, 92.6 rushing yards per game) and sophomore defensive tackle Davoan Hawkins (32 tackles, 5 sacks), who were preseason all-OVC selections. Grambling had just one player, defensive back Kenan Fontenot, to make preseason (second team) all-SWAC.

All eyes on
Former MEAC power North Carolina A&T makes its first appearance Saturday as a Big South conference member with a nonconference opener at Furman of the Southern Conference (2 p.m. ET on ESPN+).

Another MEAC/SWAC Challenge is set for Saturday (6 p.m. CT) as SWAC spring champion Alabama A&M hosts MEAC preseason favorite South Carolina State in the Louis Crews Classic in Huntsville, Ala.

A trio of interesting FCS vs. Div. II match ups Saturday has Delaware State hosting CIAA favorite Bowie State (4 p.m. ET, ESPN+), defending SIAC champ Miles at Alabama State (5 p.m. CT, ESPN+) and Virginia Union travelling to Hampton (6 p.m. ET, ESPN+). Bowie State is ranked 17th in the D2 Top 25, 18th in the AFCA Top 25.

SIAC preseason favorite Savannah State and CIAA second pick Virginia State open Saturday against nationally-ranked NCAA Div. II opponents. SSU is on the road (7 p.m. ET, Flo Football) at Valdosta State, picked sixth in the D2football top 25 and tied for sixth with Lenoir Rhyne in the AFCA poll. VSU hosts Lenoir Rhyne in Ettrick, Va. (6 p.m. ET).