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Unpredictable. That’s the best way to describe the 2011 black college football season.

Unpredictable. That’s the best way to describe the 2011 black college football season.

It was a season that saw Miles and Norfolk State each win their conference championships – the SIAC and the MEAC, respectively – for the first time, Grambling State win its 22nd SWAC crown after being counted out of the race with a 1-4 record in mid-October and Winston-Salem State capture the CIAA title and Black College National Championship with a 13-1 record, the most victories ever in a season for an HBCU.

Each week seemed to yield unexpected results, beginning with perennial SIAC also-ran Stillman’s season-opening 16-13 non-conference win against defending CIAA champion Shaw. The Tigers’ victory was only a teaser to a series of stunning upsets, which also included Stillman’s first ever victory over SIAC power Tuskegee – on the Golden Tigers’ home field, no less – two weeks later.

Week Six produced two of the year’s biggest shockers. North Carolina A&T knocked off Bethune-Cookman 22-3. The Aggies held the Wildcats, who had averaged 433.2 yards a game, to 108 total yards and minus five on the ground. That same day, Lane stunned Albany State 26-24 for the Dragons’ first-ever victory against the two-time defending SIAC champion Golden Rams.

When the dust settled at the end of the season, not one conference champion from 2010 successfully defended its title. Grambling was the only preseason favorite to win its conference crown, and the G-Men needed a seven-game winning streak to end the season to turn that tide.

“I can’t recall a season where there were so many surprises as there were this year,” says Donal Ware, host of the nationally syndicated radio talk show “From The Press Box to Press Row.”

Heritage Sports Radio Network play-by-play announcer Mark Gray says a perfect storm of quality coaching and the wide spread of emergence of young talent – particularly at the quarterback position – made for a predictably unpredictable season.

“We’re fortunate that we got so many good coaches and an even distribution of talent,” Gray says. “That made for the P word – parity. There were a ton of good freshmen. A lot of teams got younger, and we had an evening of the playing field. Teams were so close to each other that on any given Saturday, if things fell into place, you had surprises. A lot of things fell into place for a lot of teams.”

And fans flocked to games in droves each week to watch. HBCUs were involved in 12 of the 25-best attended FCS games in 2011. The Magic City Classic, featuring Alabama State vs. Alabama A&M at Legion Field in Birmingham, Alabama, had the biggest draw with 66,473 fans. Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman drew the second biggest crowd (60,218) for the Florida Classic at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando. Florida A&M and Southern attracted 59,373 fans to the Georgia Dome the Atlanta Football Classic, for the third biggest crowd of the season.

Other top 10 draws involving HBCUs were Jackson State vs. Tennessee State in the Southern Heritage Classic (43,532) at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis (No. 5); Grambling vs. Southern in the Bayou Classic (40,715) at the SuperDome in New Orleans (No. 6);. Arkansas-Pine Bluff at Jackson State (38,722, No. 7); Grambling vs. Prairie View (37,311) in the State Fair Classic at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas (No. 8); Hampton vs. Alabama A&M (35,653) in the Chicago Football Classic at Soldier Field  (No. 9), and Alcorn State vs. Jackson State 31,501) in the Capital Classic in Jackson (No. 10).

Fans attending black college games witnessed a number of memorable games and noteworthy individual performances that are worthy of special recognition. In that spirit, we unveil the inaugural Black Webby Awards in these categories:

Fantastic Finish: Howard scored 29 fourth-quarter points and upset Florida A&M 28 on the Rattlers’ Homecoming. The Bison ended a seven-game losing streak against Florida A&M with the win.

Most Improved Player: Wide receiver Mario Louis, a refugee from the intramural league at Grambling State who walked on with the G-Men, had 51 receptions for 1,129 yards – eighth-best in the FCS – and 18 touchdowns, and he averaged an eye-popping 22.1 yards a catch.

One If By Land: Morehouse running back David Carter set a Division II rushing record when he ran for 251 yards in the first half of the Maroon Tigers’ 49-12 win against Fort Valley State. Carter finished the game with 351 yards on 12 carries, and he scored four touchdowns.

Bombs Away: Jackson State quarterback Casey Therriault threw for 410 yards when the Tigers hosted Alabama State in a showdown for first place in the SWAC East. Therriault put the ball in the air 67 times and completed 36 of his attempts. Unfortunately for him and the Tigers, he also completed six passes to Alabama State defenders, and the Hornets prevailed 21-14.

Sack Master: Prairie View A&M defensive end Adrian Hamilton led the FCS with 20.5 sacks. Hamilton’s sack total exceeded the total for 45 FCS teams. Hamilton, who also led the nation with 1.86 sacks per game, had plenty of company from HBCUs at the top of the sack chart. Jackson State teammates Joseph LeBeau (1.41) and Donovan Robinson (1.40) were Nos. 2 and 3 in the FCS, Corey Hart of Alabama A&M (1.33) was No. 6 and Ryan Davis of Bethune-Cookman (1.09) was No. 10.

Prognosticator of the Year: Six weeks before the season began, Winston-Salem State coach Connell Maynor, at the CIAA’s Media Day Luncheon, said that his team would be undefeated, win the CIAA Championship Game, earn a first-round bye in the Division II playoffs and win the Division II National Championship. Maynor was 3-for-4 with his predictions as the Rams won 13 consecutive games before losing to Wayne State in the Division II semifinals.

Jekyll and Hyde Award: Southern fans had a hard time figuring which was the Jaguars team after the first two weeks of the season – the one that allowed 342 rushing yards in a season-opening 33-6 loss to Tennessee State while only gaining 37 yards on the ground themselves or the team that held Alabama A&M to 60 yards on the ground the following and won 21-6.

One and Done? Alcorn State placed first-year Coach Melvin Spears on administrative leave Dec. 12 and will determine his future at his alma mater when school reopens Jan. 4 following the Christmas holidays. The Braves were 2-8 and last in the SWAC East with the second worst record in the conference. Spears, who coached Grambling to the Black College National Championship, told The (Jackson, Miss.) Clarion-Ledger newspaper that he is being fired for insubordination. Spears is Alcorn’s fourth coach the last five years. The Braves have won only 14 games since 2007, and they haven’t had a winning season since 2006.

Early Out: Benedict fired Coach Stanley Conner four games into the season after the Tigers got off to a 1-3 start and replaced him with former Jackson State and Tuskegee offensive coordinator James Woody. Conner’s firing came two years after he guided the Tigers to an 8-3 record. Conner was 21-27 in five seasons at Benedict, which was his first head coaching position. Benedict won just one game under Woody and finished the year 2-8.

Streakin’: Lane, Howard and Mississippi Valley State can finally exhale after ending lengthy losing streak. Lane snapped the second longest losing streak in Division II – 23 consecutive games – when it beat Point University 46-18 in Week Three. Howard ended its 29-game MEAC losing streak with a 34-14 victory against Savannah State in Week Five. The Bison went on to post a 4-4 conference record and 5-6 overall mark, their best showing since they had the same record in 2006. Mississippi Valley eked out a 12-9 win against defending SWAC champion Texas Southern to stop its 19-game losing streak despite gaining just 101 total yards.

Long Time Coming: Alabama A&M won for the first time at Grambling when the Bulldogs defeated the G-Men 20-14 in Week Four. Junior running back Kaderius Lacey did the heavy lifting for Alabama A&M as he carried the ball 30 times for 178 yards. The G-Men avenged the defeat with a 16-15 victory over the Bulldogs in the SWAC Championship Game.

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