Defending Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) champion Alcorn State leads the way and a host of solid FCS teams hold down the top eight spots in the preseason Black College Sports Page Top Ten as the 2015 season gets ready for a big kickoff next week.
Alcorn State, led by fourth-year head coach Jay Hopson, is not only picked to repeat in the SWAC but has been ranked 20th nationally in the Sporting News FCS Preseason Poll. The Braves are the preseason BCSP No. 1. Behind Alcorn State are two of the five Mid Eastern Athletic Conference co-champs from 2014, South Carolina State and North Carolina A&T.
SWAC 2014 runner-up Southern is fourth followed by the Jaguar’s chief SWAC West Division rival Grambling State at No. 5. MEAC co-champ Bethune-Cookman, playing this year under new head coach Terry Sims, is sixth. A fourth MEAC co-champ, North Carolina Central, is seventh followed by the fifth co-champ Morgan State.
Two Div. II black college teams take up the final two spots, defending Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) champ Virginia State is ninth and defending Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC) champion Tuskegee is tenth. One of the keys to all ten teams ranked in the preseason top ten is that each returns their starting quarterback from a year ago. The top returnee is perhaps Alcorn State quarterback John Gibbs Jr. The 6-6 signal caller ran for 1,006 yards and 11 TDs and passed for 2,482 yards and 21 scores last season while leading the Braves to their first SWAC title in 20 years.
Gibbs was the 2014 SWAC co-offensive player of the year and was picked by the league’s coaches as the top offensive player in 2015. But what has most observers believing that the Braves will improve on their 10-3 2014 record are the other key returnees.
Gibbs gets back his entire starting offensive line led by 2014 all-SWAC picks Isaac Sampson and Detonio Dade, dynamic running backs in Arron Baker (725 yards, 13 TDs) and Darryan Ragsdale (691 yards, 7 TDs) as well as all-American tight end Jordan Payne (25 rec., 463 yds., 5 TDs). The defense is led by three all-SWAC selections at each key section of the defense – Damien Woody on the line, Damon Watkins at linebacker and Warren Gatewood in the secondary. Punter and placekicker Haiden McCrainey is also a preseason all-SWAC pick.
The Braves open next Thursday (September 3) at ACC power Georgia Tech. In addition to returning starting quarterback Adrian Kollock Jr. and a host of running backs on offense, No. 2 South Carolina State has what some are calling the best defense in head coach Oliver “Buddy” Pough’s 14 years.
Topping the list is all-American defensive lineman Javon Hargrave, the reigning MEAC defensive player of the year who registered 16 sacks and 24 tackles for losses last year, tops in the MEAC and among the leaders in the FCS. Sophomore linebacker Darius Leonard, who led the Bulldogs in tackles (87) and won MEAC defensive rookie of the year last season, and defensive back/kick returner extraordinaire Antonio Hamilton are among the key standouts. SCSU returns 11 of its top 12 tacklers. The Bulldogs open next Sunday (Sept. 6) vs. Arkansas-Pine Bluff in Orlando at the 11th MEAC/SWAC Challenge.
Speed is the calling card for No. 3 North Carolina A&T and running back Tarik Cohen is the leading purveyor. The 5-9, 170-pound speedster is coming off his second 1,000-yard season (15 TDs) and is the reigning MEAC co-offensive player of the year. Kwashaun Quick (1,418 yards, 13 TDs) returns for his senior season at quarterback. Lineman Marquis Ragland and linebackers Denzel Jones and DBs Tony McRae and Landis Shoffner lead the Aggie defense. A&T plays at home next Saturday vs. Shaw to open the season.
No. 4 Southern gets sophomore quarterback Austin Howard (2,334 passing yards, 17 TDs) back along with 1,000-yard rusher Lenard Tillery and prolific wide receiver/kick returner Willie Quinn (62 receptions, 852 yards, 5 TDs). The Jaguars, who lost a lot on defense, feature senior linebacker Demetrius Carter (104 tackles). The Jags get things underway at Louisiana Tcch next Saturday.
Grambling State senior quarterback Johnathan Williams, who led the SWAC in passing (272.7 ypg., 18 TDs, 7 ints.) and passing efficiency (146.2), is back to lead the Tigers. Chester Rogers (53 rec., 732 yds., 7 TDs) is his chief target. Grambling starts on the road next Saturday at Cal-Berkeley. Bethune-Cookman, who opens at Miami Saturday, returns two experienced triggermen in senior Quentin Williams (1,426 yards, 7 TDs) and sophomore Larry Brihm. The Wildcats also lost a host of key defenders.
North Carolina Central returns seven all-MEAC performers including preseason first team quarterback Malcolm Bell (1,984 yds., 15 TDs), wideout Quentin Atkinson (50 rec., 615 yds., 5 TDs) and defensive secondary standouts Mike Jones and C. J. Moore. The Eagles open at home vs. Saint Augustine’s next Saturday. Morgan State lost key playmakers on defense but returns starting quarterback Moses Skillon (1,392 yds., 13 TDs) and dynamic running back Herb Walker Jr. (1,408 yds., 13 TDs). The Bears travel to Colorado to take on the Air Force Academy next Saturday. Virginia State and Tuskegee each return quarterbacks that led them to conference titles a year ago.
VSU, expecting a challenge from Winston-Salem State in the CIAA, will have junior Tarian Ayres (2,132 yds., 15 TDs) at the controls. He will be complemented by workhorse running back Kavon Bellamy (989 yds., 15 TDs) and wideout Javon Smallwood (59 rec., 979 yds., 7 TDs). The Trojans host California (Pa.) next Saturday. Tuskegee brings back junior Kevin Lacey (1,278 yds., 7 TDs). The Tigers, expecting a challenge from Albany State in the SIAC, host Clark Atlanta in its opener next Saturday.