HBCU Football Preview: Arkansas Pine-Bluff Is Not Here For Your Amusement

It’s important to keep in mind the intimacy of HBCU sports. You often hear the question of why the Southwestern Athletic Conference doesn’t send a team to the FCS playoffs, or why don’t black college sports compete on more of a national scale.

Wouldn’t it help them with recruiting, if players knew they could compete for a national title at the end of the season?

It all depends on whether a young, promising athlete can be sold on that localized fame appeal. You win the SWAC, MEAC or an HBCU classic, and it means just as much or more than a chance to take on Montana or North Dakota State in the FCS title game.

Unfortunately, most black colleges don’t have the resources that elite FCS programs do, so it’s an uneven playing field economically. Best to do like the south did for so long in Hip-Hop – keep the money and attraction local, then shine in any weather.

The college football season gets started this week with a lot of the writing on the HBCU football wall. Here’s a look at the black football college hierarchy of the moment.


Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference

Bethune-Cookman is the preeminent HBCU football squad going into the 2013 season, just as the Wildcats were the year before. The season ended with a first-round FCS playoff loss to Coastal Carolina, but BCU is looking to pick up right where it left off in dominating the MEAC.

There are a couple of wrinkles, though. Howard and North Carolina A&T are on the rise. First glance doesn’t have them dethroning BCU, but that’s why they play the games on the field rather than on paper.

N.C. A&T was one of three MEAC teams to finish with a league record of 5-3. This will be the Aggies’ first season since 2008 without penalties for poor academic performance ratings. No postseason bans, scholarship limits or practice reductions. If the Aggies are reaching their full potential, it’s going to be something to lend attention to.

Howard has that peculiar coaching situation, with defensive coordinator Ray Petty taking over in the interim for head coach Gary Harrell, who’s on a voluntary leave of absence since March, but is actually expected to return at some point. It’s unclear how long Harrell will be out. But Howard just put in its first winning season since 2004, albeit with a loss to N.C. A&T. It’s going to be interesting to see whether the Bison rise or fall in 2013.

The Aggies and Bison face each other Sept. 26 on ESPNU.

At the bottom of the league is Savannah State, which is trying to reinvent itself under new head coach Earnest Wilson III. The Tigers logged just one win in 2012 and dropped an egg in conference play. In the off-season, despite having just four seniors from last season, the Tigers lost 27 lettermen.

Delaware State, N.C. Central, Florida A&M – the middle of the pack – are all marking down the Savannah State game down as a dub.

BCU is still by far the best team in the conference, and the only HBCU squad likely to rep in the FCS playoffs this season.


Southwestern Athletic Conference

Things are bit more competitive in the SWAC, but the East Division is where the party is. Arkansas Pine-Bluff has the West by the throat, unless Southern emerges. Grambling State and Houston-area schools Texas Southern and Prairie View would all be surprises if they suddenly became viable, though Grambling and PV are both expected to be improved.

Jackson State is bringing back most of its SWAC Championship competing squad from a year ago with 15 lettermen. 

Senior quarterback Clayton Moore passed for 1,863 yards and 11 touchdowns, while rushing for 633 yards and scoring just as many TDs on the ground last season. Moore has developed into a leader for the Tigers. 

Moore’s primary target will be wide receiver Zachary Pendleton, who grabbed 33 catches for 457 yards in 2012. But other receivers for Jackson State are going to have to carry the load with the departure of SWAC Offensive Player of the Year Rico Richardson.

Jackson State’s defense boasts FCS Preseason All-American cornerback Qua Cox and his five interceptions from last season. This team should be legit.

That said, Alabama A&M and Alabama State could still be really good despite some concerns. A&M is in a rebuilding year, having to replace its quarterback, running back and a total of 23 seniors from the team that won six conference games last year. Head coach Anthony Jones has challenges ahead of him, one of them is figuring out what this new A&M team is about.

With Alabama State, Isaiah Crowell is expected to be the bread and butter, regardless of the new quarterback situation. On defense, the Hornets have skill and depth in their front seven, with first-year defensive coordinator Kevin Ramsey set to leave his imprint on that side of the ball this season. A lot could happen in the East.

Arkansas Pine-Bluff is the overall favorite until proven otherwise. The Golden Lions return 20 starters from the championship team, including SWAC Championship MVP quarterback Ben Anderson, and one of the league’s top rushers in Justin Billings.


Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association

Defending CIAA champion Winston-Salem State goes into the season as the highest ranked HBCU team in the American Football Coaches Association preseason poll (Division II), coming off a CIAA championship a year ago. Despite losing a handful of offensive weapons, WSSU is still the team to beat. CIAA Player of the Year and three-year starting quarterback Kameron Smith is gone, but filling his shoes will be former Grambling QB Anthony Carrothers, who saw plenty of garbage time with the Rams last year when they were powering through the CIAA.

Elizabeth City State is trying to get over the hump, having established a respectable program in the last 10 years but still not capturing a conference title in that time. The Vikings are going to have to overcome a tough schedule before challenging Winston-Salem’s mettle in the conference, opening the season with Newberry College, followed by with back-to-back road games against Tusculum and Albany State. Then they have the Down East Classic against Fayetteville State in Rocky Mount, NC and on the road the next week against Saint Augustine. The Vikings are back home against Virginia State in Week 6.


Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (Division II)

Tuskegee appears to be building something special. They’re early favorites to repeat as SIAC champions with an overwhelming majority of their team coming back against a league the Golden Tigers handled like lightweights last season.  Tuskegee ranked at 24th in the American Football Coaches Association preseason poll.

Tuskegee will have to make up for losing standout running back Derrick Washington, but quarterback Justin Nared is expected to make some strides as a leader this season.

In the East Division, Albany State is considered the top dog going in. But Fort Valley State is going to be right there as well. This could turn into an arms race by the time they face each other Nov. 9th in the Fountain City Classic.


The Bands

We appreciate just about all of the bands at black colleges, but this season is going to be about the return of the Marching 100. The Florida Blue Classic is going to have Bethune kicking FAMU’s tail on the field, while the Marching 100 brings it back after missing the Classic last year in the aftermath of a hazing scandal. It’s difficult to tell whether we’re far enough removed from the tragic situation in 2011 to even celebrate this band. But if the steps FAMU has taken in the past two years show any progress and if a lesson has been learned here, it’s worth it to see the most popular HBCU band return to form.

Expect them to steal the halftime and pregame show wherever they go this season.


Players To Watch

Ben Anderson, QB (Arkansas Pine-Bluff)

Isidore Jackson, RB (Bethune-Cookman)

Damien Fleming, QB (Florida A&M)

Justin Nared, QB (Tuskegee)

Qua Cox, DB (Jackson State)

Anthony Balancier, LB (Southern)

D’Vonte Graham, DB (North Carolina A&T)

Jarkevis Fields, LB (Bethune-Cookman)

LeBrandon Richardson, DL (Bethune-Cookman)


HBCU MVP – Isaiah Crowell, RB (Alabama State)


Five Must-See Games

Texas Southern vs. Prairie View, Aug. 31

Alabama State vs. Jackson State, Sept. 7

Winston-Salem State vs. Tuskegee, Sept. 21

Jackson State vs. Grambling State, Oct. 19

Bethune-Cookman vs. Florida A&M, Nov. 23

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