NCAA Football

FCS 2019: SWAC Preview

By CRAIG HALEY

STATS FCS Senior Editor

(STATS) - The veteran squads at Alcorn State and Southern are favored to make it back to the SWAC championship game this season, but their chief rivals won't make it easy on them.

It is not a year to be rebuilding in the tradition-rich conference, which boasts veteran lineups and outstanding quarterbacks, especially with the projected teams.Alabama A&M and Jackson State have lifted their programs again to possibly end Alcorn's five-year run of East Division titles. In the West, Southern has to survive Grambling State and Prairie View A&M.

Alcorn beat Southern 37-28 in last year's title game to advance to the Celebration Bowl.

Following is a predicted order of finish and a team-by-team breakdown of the 2019 SWAC race:

East Division

1. Alcorn State

2. Alabama A&M

3. Jackson State

4. Alabama State

5. Mississippi Valley State

West Division

1. Southern

2. Prairie View A&M

3. Grambling State

4. Arkansas-Pine Bluff

5. Texas Southern

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TEAM CAPSULES

EAST DIVISION

1. ALCORN STATE

LOCATION: Lorman, Mississippi

STADIUM: Jack Spinks Stadium

HEAD COACH: Fred McNair (21-15, three seasons)

2018 RECORDS: 9-4 overall, 6-1 SWAC East (1st)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 15 (8 offense/7 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Noah Johnson, QB, Sr.; De'Shawn Waller, RB, Sr.; Chris Blair, WR, Sr.; Mustaffa Ibrahim, OL, Sr.; Kevin Hall, OL, Sr.; Deonte Brooks, OL, Sr.; Myshawn Smith, DL, Sr.; Solomon Muhammad, LB, Sr.; Brelion Hollis, LB, Sr.; Javen Morrison, DB, Sr.; Qwynnterrio Cole, DB, Jr.; Corey McCullough, PK/P, Sr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Chris McCrea, OL; Sterling Shippy, DL; Terry Whittington, DL

OUTLOOK: The defending SWAC champion Braves want it all - another conference title, a Celebration Bowl win and the black college football national championship. It's all in play for their experienced, talent-laden team. The returning starters on offense include QB Johnson, the SWAC's 2018 offensive player of the year; 1,200-yard rusher Waller, the conference's newcomer of the year; and four offensive linemen. The Braves led the FCS in sacks (52) and tackles for loss (124) last season, but their dominating line suffered key losses. Their second and third units return three first-team All-SWAC selections in LB Muhammad and DBs Morrison and Cole. With McCullough, the Braves have a terrific kicker.

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2. ALABAMA A&M

LOCATION: Huntsville, Alabama

STADIUM: Louis Crews Stadium

HEAD COACH: Connell Maynor (6-5, one season; 71-36 overall)

2018 RECORDS: 6-5 overall, 5-2 SWAC East (2nd)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 14 (8 offense/6 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Aqeel Glass, QB, Jr.; Jordan Bentley, RB, Sr.; Brian Jenkins Jr., WR/KR, So.; Zabrian Moore, WR, Jr.; Kendric Johnson, TE, Jr.; Shonye Reams, LT, Jr.; DeAngelo Woods, NT, Jr.; Armoni Holloway, LB, Jr.; Mike Mills, CB, Sr.; Tuwile Wilson, CB, Jr.; Joshua M. Williams, CB, Jr.; Desmond Fletcher, S, Sr.; A.J. Harris, S, So. (Ole Miss transfer); Spencer Corey, PK/P, Jr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Trevon Walters, RB; Yurik Bethune, DE; Dylan Hamilton, S

OUTLOOK: No East team should make Alcorn State sweat more than the Bulldogs, who are coming off their first winning season since 2012. QB Glass was a revelation while running the spread offense as a sophomore, passing for 2,426 yards and 20 touchdowns - both SWAC-leading totals. While the offensive line seeks improvement, RB Bentley is set to finish off a strong career and the young wide receivers are grown up already. A&M also had one of the top defenses in the SWAC last season and returns the conference's leading tackler (108) in Holloway.

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3. JACKSON STATE

LOCATION: Jackson, Mississippi

STADIUM: Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium

HEAD COACH: John Hendrick (2-1, one season; 20-26 overall)

2018 RECORDS: 5-5 overall, 4-3 SWAC East (3rd)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 10 (5 offense/5 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Jalon Jones, QB, Fr. (Florida transfer); Matt Little, QB, So. (Western Michigan transfer); Derrick Ponder, QB, Jr.; Jordan Johnson, RB, Sr.; Keyshawn Harper, RB, Jr.; D.D. Bowie, WR, So. (Ole Miss transfer); Warren Newman, WR, Jr.; Khalil Johnson, DL, Sr.; C.J. Anderson, DL, Jr.; Keonte Hampton, LB, So.; Markel Gladney, DB, Jr.; C.J. Holmes, DB, Sr.; Adrian Salazar, PK/P, Sr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Romelu Shumake, WR; Malik Hamner, DL; Eric Bowie, LB

OUTLOOK: After three straight 3-8 seasons, the Tigers became relevant again last season. They gave the full-time position to Hendrick, who was 2-1 in an interim role in November. Their depth at quarterback - Florida transfer Jones is considered the favorite to win the top job - should fix some of last year's offensive shortcomings (they had a mere 16.5-point average). The defense ranked second in the conference and gets back leading tackler Hampton. In a spotlight, the Tigers open the season against Bethune-Cookman in the MEAC-SWAC Challenge.

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4. ALABAMA STATE

LOCATION: Montgomery, Alabama

STADIUM: Hornet Stadium

HEAD COACH: Donald Hill-Eley (9-8, two seasons; 68-84 overall)

2018 RECORDS: 4-7 overall, 3-4 SWAC East (4th)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 16 (10 offense/6 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: KHA'Darris Davis, QB, R-Jr.; Darryl Pearson Jr., QB, R-Jr.; Ezra Gray, RB, Sr.; George Golden, RB, R-So.; Tyrek Allen, WR, Sr.; Jeremiah Hixon, WR, So.; Michael Jefferson, WR, So.; Carl Thompson, C, Sr.; De'Andre Brown, OT, Sr.; Christian Clark, DL, Jr.; Darron Johnson, LB, Sr.; Joshua Hill, DB, Sr.; Jeffrey Hill, DB, Sr.; Hunter Hanson, PK, Jr.; Anthony Craven, P, Sr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Tytus Howard, OT; Dennis Robert, DB/LB; Kurron Ramsey, DB

OUTLOOK: That Alabama State boasted the first 2019 NFL Draft selection from the FCS (Howard) indicates the type of talent in the program. Fortunately for the offense, no other starter was lost this offseason. Davis ended the season as the starting quarterback, although Pearson also played a lot as a sophomore. Gray and Golden could form a strong running duo. A change in the defensive system will be key after the Hornets were last against the run in the SWAC, allowing over 270 yards per game. Clark and Johnson must key the improvement.

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5. MISSISSIPPI VALLEY STATE

LOCATION: Itta Bena, Mississippi

STADIUM: Rice-Totten Field

HEAD COACH: Vincent Dancy (1-10, one season)

2018 RECORDS: 1-10 overall, 1-6 SWAC East (5th)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 12 (6 offense/6 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Dejerric Bryant, QB, Jr.; John Derrick Smith, RB, Sr. ; Qu'Juan Spradley, OL, Sr.; Zacchaeus Sias, OL, Sr.; Adam Hamilton, DT, Jr.; Tracy Thompkins, OLB, Sr.; Varandre White, LB, Jr.; Deione Reed, LB, So.; Tadarius Davis, LB, Sr.; Jerry Garner, LB, Jr.; Jamenta Shaw, FS, Sr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Booker Chambers, WR/RS; Quinn McElfresh, WR; Bryant Jones, DT

OUTLOOK: The Delta Devils' roster had a lot of turnover following Dancy's first season. Considering they have posted only nine wins over the last six seasons, their goal is to make significant improvement in Year 2. QB Bryant led the team in rushing, but he threw for eight interceptions with only four touchdowns. Plus, last year's key playmakers are gone. Particular improvement is needed in the trenches after they totaled only eight sacks yet allowed 41. The growth will likely come later in the season because the opening stretch of Tennessee State, Lamar, Bethune-Cookman and Alcorn State is brutally tough.

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WEST DIVISION

1. SOUTHERN

LOCATION: Baton Rouge, Louisiana

STADIUM: Ace W. Mumford Stadium

HEAD COACH: Dawson Odums (50-29, seven seasons)

2018 RECORDS: 7-4 overall, 6-1 SWAC West (1st)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 17 (9 offense/8 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Ladarius Skelton, QB, Sr.; Devon Benn, RB, Sr.; Craig Nelson, RB, R-So. (Indiana transfer); Hunter Register, WR, R-So.; Jeremias Houston, TE, Sr.; Jaylon Brinson, C, R-Sr.; Jodeci Harris, OL, R-Sr.; Jeremiah Abby, OL, Sr.; Davin Cotton, DT, R-Fr. (LSU transfer); Jordan Lewis, DE, So.; Chazmyn Turner, DE, R-Jr. (Purdue transfer); Calvin Lunkins, LB, R-Sr.; Caleb Carter, LB, R-So.; Montavius Gaines, FS, R-Sr.; O.J. Tucker, CB, R-So. (Iowa State transfer); Chase Foster, DB, Jr.; Jakoby Pappillon, DB, Jr.; Cesar Barajas, P, Jr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Kendall Catalon, WR; Trey Smith, WR; Demerio Houston, DB/RS

OUTLOOK: The defending West champ only lost to Alcorn State (twice) and FBS programs TCU and Louisiana Tech last year. A win over McNeese or Memphis early this season would turn heads leading toward the SWAC schedule. The Jaguars already had 17 returning starters, but Odums supplemented the lineup with FBS transfers. The offense took off behind QB Skelton last season and RB Benn keeps the chains moving. The defense features pass rush specialist Lewis. With the West games and crossover matchups with Alcorn State, Alabama A&M and Jackson State, the Jaguars basically have the toughest schedule in the SWAC.

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2. PRAIRIE VIEW A&M

LOCATION: Prairie View, Texas

STADIUM: PVAMU Football Stadium

HEAD COACH: Eric Dooley (5-6, one season)

2018 RECORDS: 5-6 overall, 4-3 SWAC West (Tie/2nd)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 16 (9 offense/7 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Jalen Morton, QB, Sr.; Neiko Hollins, QB, R-Jr.; Dawonya Tucker, RB, Sr.; Tristen Wallace, WR, R-Jr.; Kalen Riles, WR, R-Jr.; Zarrian Holcombe, TE, Sr.; DeJohn Jones, OL, Jr.; Christian Rice, OL, R-Sr.; Danny Garza, OL, Jr.; Stephen Scott, DL, R-Sr.; Jason Dumas, DT, So.; Ronald Collins, DT, R-Sr.; Jaylen Harris, CB, R-Jr.; Ju'Anthony Parker, CB, Sr.; Drake Cheatum, SS, So.; Zach Elder, PK, Jr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Markcus Hardy, WR; Quinton Bell, DE; Anthony Stubbs, LB

OUTLOOK: In an oddity during Dooley's first season, the Panthers were perhaps more impressive in nonconference losses than in SWAC wins. But Morton (conference-high 294.4 total yards per game) and Hollins didn't sustain their early season dominance over the full season. Back again as seniors, they will lead one of the SWAC's top offenses, which also has a stout offensive line. The defense again features two-time SWAC first-teamer Parker. A three-game stretch of Alcorn State (Sept. 21), Grambling State (Sept. 28) and Southern (Oct. 12) will basically decide the Panthers' fate in the title race.

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3. GRAMBLING STATE

LOCATION: Grambling, Louisiana

STADIUM: Eddie Robinson Stadium

HEAD COACH: Broderick Fobbs (44-16, five seasons)

2018 RECORDS: 6-5 overall, 4-3 (Tie/2nd)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 14 (7 offense/7 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Geremy Hickbottom, QB, R-Jr.; Kevin Dominique, RB, R-So.; Quintin Guice, WR, Sr.; DeVante Davis, WR, Gr.; Darrell Clark, WR, R-Sr.; William Waddell, OL, R-Jr.; Fred Williams, OL, Sr.; Anfernee Mullins, DL, R-Sr.; De'Andre Hogues, LB, Sr.; Jeremy Carter, LB, R-Sr.; Chris Grant, DB, Sr.; Danquarian Fields, DB, So.; Joseph McWilliams, S, R-Sr.; Devanir Martin, DB, Jr.

KEY LOSSES: Johntavious Robinson, RB; De'Arius Christmas, LB; Percy Cargo, DB

OUTLOOK: The Tigers surely will be improved after a 2018 season which was considered subpar by program standards. After early season back-and-forth at quarterback, Hickbottom took control of the position in the second half of the season. An improved line (41 sacks allowed) and more seasoned skills position players will aid Hickbottom. While the Tigers have to overcome the loss of Christmas, the two-time SWAC defensive player of the year, they return a top talent in S McWilliams on an athletic, aggressive defense. In a 12-game season, the Tigers will play only four home games, where they have won 13 straight games since 2015.

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4. ARKANSAS-PINE BLUFF

LOCATION: Pine Bluff, Arkansas

STADIUM:

HEAD COACH: Cedric Thomas (2-9, one season)

2018 RECORDS: 2-9 overall, 1-6 SWAC West (Tie/4th)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 16 (10 offense/6 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Skyler Perry, QB, So.; Taeyler Porter, RB, Sr.; DeJuan Miller, WR, So.; Josh Wilkes, WR. Jr.; Tyrin Ralph, WR, Jr.; Harry Ballard, WR, Jr (Missouri transfer); Jeremy Brown, TE, Jr.; Mark Evans, OL, So.; Jalen Steward, DE, Sr.; Xavier Mitchell, DE, So.; Shawn Steele, CB, Jr.; Henri Murphy, CB, Sr, (Virginia Tech transfer)

THREE KEY LOSSES: David Aduo, OL; Je'Kevin Carter, LB; Jamie Gillan, P

OUTLOOK: First the good news: The Golden Eagles have plenty of offensive weapons back from a year ago. Porter led the SWAC in rushing, gaining 1,220 yards in only 10 games, and QB Perry and WR Miller settled in as a young combination to build around. Now the bad news: They ranked last in the FCS in total defense (558.1 yards per game) and fifth from the bottom in scoring defense (43.2 points per game). Steward, who made the SWAC preseason second team, must galvanize the potential improvement. The loss of Gillan is big because he was first-team All-SWAC at both place-kicker and punter.

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5. TEXAS SOUTHERN

LOCATION: Houston

STADIUM: BBVA Compass Stadium

HEAD COACH: Clarence McKinney (first season)

2018 RECORDS: 2-9 overall, 1-6 (Tie/4th)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 11 (4 offense/7 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Devin Williams, QB, Jr.; DeAndre Johnson, QB, Gr. (Florida Atlantic transfer); Tylor Cook, RB, Sr.; Tren'Davian Dickson, WR, R-Jr.; Tariq Buchanan, WR, R-So.; Chris Long, TE, Sr.; Dominic DeRiggi, OL, Sr.; Michael Badejo, DL, Jr. (SMU transfer); Michael Johnson, DL, Jr. (Baylor transfer); Jarryl Taylor, DL, Sr.; Ike Onwuasoanya, DL, R-Jr.; Julian Marcantel, LB, Sr.; Patrick Howell, LB, Jr.; Sherry Durand, LB, Jr. (Tyler JC transfer); Demontario Anderson, LB, Jr.; Joshua Murray, DB, Jr.; Marquis Walker, DB, Jr.; Aaron Cuevas, PK, R-Jr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Brad Woodard, RB; Bobby Hartzog, WR; Sean Jones, DB

OUTLOOK: McKinney, the Arizona running backs coach a year ago, returns to the Houston area to try to lift a program that last had a winning season in 2010. The Tigers bring a 13-game road losing streak into the new season. Whoever is named the starting quarterback - Williams or Johnson - will seek to get the ball to Dickson, who was second in the SWAC with 815 receiving yards. It will help if the run game improves after the Tigers ranked last in the SWAC at 85.1 yards per game. Defensive leader Marcantel (92 tackles, four interceptions) had an outstanding junior season

Updated August 8, 2019