Playing football this spring for the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) and Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) offers a unique spotlight.
The Power 5 and Group of 5 FBS programs played in the fall, and so the FCS programs will be in the limelight and won’t be eclipsed by the major schools. That means more eyeballs on two leagues that have NFL-level talent, marquee rivalries and one marquee first-time coach, Jackson State’s Deion Sanders.
The biggest challenge the schools face will be just completing the spring season, given how things look today compared with how things stood in March 2020, when entire campuses were emptied as the COVID-19 pandemic first struck.
As of the last week of January, some three weeks before the truncated seasons are scheduled to start, the SWAC had all 10 teams set to play, but in just six games. The MEAC was down to six teams and a four-game season after three schools opted out of football. The SWAC started seeing programs paused for potential COVID-19 outbreaks a week into practice – Jackson State on Jan. 27.
For the spring setup, the NCAA set minimums for FCS postseason eligibility at three teams competing in a conference, and four games played against conference competition. Both conferences are within both limits right now.
In the last few months, coaches in both leagues spent time sorting through their rosters to see who was returning and who was opting out for health reasons, using the NCAA-approved redshirt year and skipping the spring season to prepare for the NFL.
Some things will be settled by Feb. 20 and Feb. 21, when teams in both leagues are supposed to open their seasons. SWAC commissioner Charles McClelland repeated his pandemic-long mantra when his coaches held their media day in January: “COVID-19 is what’s driving this train.”
One other historically Black college and university (HBCU) team will also be playing this spring: Tennessee State in the Ohio Valley Conference. The Tigers open their seven-game schedule on Feb. 21 against Jacksonville State.
Here is what to expect on the field in the two Division I HBCU conferences.
With Florida A&M, Bethune-Cookman and North Carolina Central opting out, the conference is divided into three-team North and South divisions, whose winners will meet April 17 in the first championship game to determine the automatic qualifier for the FCS playoffs. The rapid realignment turned the South into a beast: Norfolk State, the likely favorite in the early version of the North, was shifted to the South into competition with 2019 MEAC co-regular season champions North Carolina A&T and South Carolina State.
The Norfolk State Spartans won four of their last six games in the 2019 season to negate a 1-5 start, and are rewarded with competition with two programs that not only are the teams to beat in the league, but have potential to eventually win games in the NCAA field.
“We welcome the challenge,” said Norfolk State head coach Latrell Scott, adding, “I’m from the school of thought that if you want to be a champion and you want to have success, you have to beat the champion.”
The champion – North Carolina A&T, which beat South Carolina State head to head to earn the tiebreaker and the 2019 Celebration Bowl berth – is in its farewell season in the MEAC, moving to the Big South in the fall. When asked if leaving the MEAC on a high was motivation for this season, Aggies head coach Sam Washington replied: “We just want to win.”
All three contenders have superlative offensive centerpieces: North Carolina A&T with the preseason offensive player of the year choice, running back Jah-Maine Martin; Norfolk State with senior quarterback Juwan Carter, the preseason All-MEAC first-team selection; and South Carolina State with sophomore quarterback Corey Fields, who is second behind Carter among returning players in yards per game and passer rating.
How jumbled is this year’s MEAC? Delaware State’s Rod Milstead, entering his third season, is the dean of coaches in this year’s North: Howard’s Larry Scott is in his first year, Morgan State’s Tyrone Wheatley in his second. And, 18 members of the 2020 preseason all-conference teams chosen in August 2020 won’t play because their teams have opted out.
North Carolina A&T cornerback Franklin “Mac” McCain, a first-team All-MEAC selection in 2019 and preseason pick this year, decided to forgo his final season to concentrate on the NFL draft.
All eyes will be on the newest head coach in the league, Jackson State’s Sanders. That is if the preseason coaches’ media conference is any indication, with every school deluged with questions about Sanders and the spotlight he brings to HBCU ball.
Southern University coach Dawson Odums answered the inevitable question totally deadpan, without mentioning the coach or school. “We’re getting Southern University prepared to play this year, and I think that’s what it’s mostly about,” he said. “Probably need to come check us out. I think we’ve got a really good football team.”
The league’s coaches and sports information directors agree: Southern was the landslide pick to repeat in the West division, with defending conference champion Alcorn State picked in another landslide in the East. The SWAC championship game is scheduled for May 1; the league again declined to participate in the FCS playoffs, even with no Celebration Bowl this spring as an alternative.
In more realignment drama, this is Alcorn’s last season in the East. It moves West in the fall to make room for newcomers Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman.
Until then, Alcorn will work to fend off Alabama A&M and senior quarterback Aqeel Glass, who will be also burnishing his NFL credentials. Alcorn will have a weapon of its own at the position: senior Felix Harper, the reigning offensive player of the year and preseason pick to win the award this season.
Southern will have to hold off traditional rival Grambling and sleeper Prairie View A&M, which features a defense with four preseason first-team players, including defensive backs Jaylen Harris and Drake Cheatum.
The SWAC’s two new coaches are both in the West: Sanders (who has the preseason defensive player of the year pick in sophomore linebacker Keonte Hampton) and Arkansas-Pine Bluff’s Doc Gamble, whose team might be flying under the radar as much as he is after his promotion from assistant head coach following a 2019 season in which the Golden Lions got off to a 5-2 start on their way to 6-5, their first winning season since 2012.
Gamble’s debut, of course, has been delayed and filled with different priorities from when he arrived last spring. But, he said, “We have a saying around here: ‘You’re always ready for a ready. You can’t just have a Plan A. You’ve got to have a Plan B and a Plan C.’ ”
That goes for all of spring HBCU football.