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football-foreground-447Winston-Salem State will play for a place in Black College football history this season.

The Rams, the 2012 NCAA Division II national runners-up, are the two-time defending CIAA and Black College National Champions. Should they three-peat as national champs, they will join Central State as the only schools to win three straight national crowns. The Marauders won five straight from 1986-90.

“That would be great,’’ Winston-Salem coach Connell Maynor says. “We’re shooting for that. It’s one of our goals to be Black College National Champions again. It would be great if we can accomplish that and win all of our games again.’’

The Rams go into the season ranked No. 1 among HBCUs and No. 5 in Division II.

Winston-Salem, which hasn’t lost to a CIAA opponent since dropping a 31-27 decision to Shaw in the last game of the 2010 season, will have a pair of formidable early season nonconference challenges as they pursue history. The Rams face UNC-Pembroke in their nationally televised season-opener (CBS Sports Network) on Sept. 5, and they play Tuskegee, No. 24 in the Division II preseason poll and a perennial HBCU contender, in the Cleveland Classic Sept. 21.

Winston-Salem lost 30 seniors from last season and has 50 newcomers on this year’s squad. That makes the Rams’ Sept. 5 nationally televised season-opener at UNC-Pembroke season-opener (CBS Sports Network) especially worrisome for Maynor.

“This team has to establish its own identity,’’ Maynor says.  “Las year’s team had its identity. When you have a lot of returning guys who know the system, they’ve been through your practices. The first game is like a carryover, an extended season, a big layoff where you come back and get back to business. When you have a lot of new faces, a major concern is ‘is it a fast-starting team, a slow-starting team, a first-half team, a second-half team. A lot of these guys haven’t played a college game under the lights with them keeping score. You don’t know how they’re going to react.’’

Winston-Salem hasn’t lost to a CIAA opponent since dropping a 31-27 decision to Shaw in the 2010 season finale. The Rams shouldn’t have a problem three-peating as conference champs despite losing All-American quarterback Kameron Smith, 1,000-yard receivers Jameze Massey and Jahuann Butler, who also combined for 27 touchdowns, and Jamal Williams, who had 51 receptions and 12 touchdowns.

Anthony Carrothers, a freshman starter at Grambling in 2009, takes over for Smith. Carrothers threw 12 touchdown passes as the backup last season, and he led the Rams to a pair of Division II playoff wins when Smith was injured. Other offensive weapons include running back Maurice Lewis (1,027 yards and touchdowns). The offensive line features All- IAA picks Chris Bearden and Nathaniel Haetung.

All-American linebacker Carlos Fields, the 2012 CIAA Defensive Player of the Year anchors the defense, which only allowed 294.3 total yards and 17.4 points a game.

Everybody else is playing for second place in the CIAA Southern Division, with Shaw likely to be the best of rest. The key for the Bears will be their ability to shore up an unexpectedly porous defense that allowed 363 yards a game in former defensive coordinator Robert Massey’s first season as head coach a year ago.

Chowan appears ready to unseat Elizabeth City State atop the CIAA Northern Division. Defense was the Hawks’ Achilles heel in 2012, allowing 406 yards and 26.8 points a game. That unit returns eight starters, including All-CIAA linebacker T. J. Batchelor. Offense will again be Chowan’s calling card. Quarterback Cameron Stover (2,358 yards, 19 touchdowns, 61% completion rate), will have his top four receivers back. In addition, Robert Holland (220 career receptions for 2,825 yards and 27 touchdowns), a three-time All-CIAA receiver, received a medical redshirt after being hurt in the 2012 opener.

Questions abound in the SWAC, which begins its 15th season of division play with defending champion Arkansas-Pine Bluff as the frontrunner.

Was 2012 an aberration for the Golden Lions? Will Southern, Mississippi Valley State and Alcorn State build on the improvement that they made a year ago? Will Jackson State be able to bounce back from its gut-wrenching overtime loss in the 2012 SWAC Championship Game and capture the title that slipped away? Can Alabama A&M survive losing 23 seniors?  How will Grambling State rebound from its embarrassing 1-10 showing in 2012 that saw the Tigers go winless in the conference for the first time ever?  Will revamped defenses propel Prairie View A&M and Alabama State their respective division crowns? Can Texas Southern be competitive despite being on probation?

Arkansas-Pine Bluff appears to have the horses to repeat as SWAC champs and perhaps claim the first National Championship in school history if Winston-Salem falters. The Golden Lions return 20 starters – 10 on each side of the ball – from the squad that set the school record for victories in a season with a 10-2 mark. All-SWAC redshirt junior quarterback Ben Anderson (2,346 yards, 16 touchdowns), MVP of the SWAC Championship Game, is the Golden Lions’ marquee offensive player. Anderson will have plenty of help with a trio of All-SWAC skill position players in r-Running back Justin Billings (852 rushing yards), wide receiver Ladarius Eckwood (52 receptions, 752 yards) and tight end Dez Beverly (46 catches,  434 yards).Linebacker Jer-Ryan Harris and free safety Ryan Shaw, a pair of All-SWAC pick, anchor a solid defensive unit.

Southern will push the Golden Lions in the SWAC West Division provided the Jaguars continue the improvement made after Dawson Odums replaced Stump Mitchell on an interim basis two games into last season. The Jaguars were 4-7 for the second consecutive season, beating their three biggest rivals – Florida A&M, Jackson State and Grambling State – in the process. Second-team All-SWAC junior quarterback Dray Joseph (2.511 yards passing, 25 touchdowns) is the unquestioned leader of the Jaguars’ offense. All-SWAC wide receiver Lee Doss (65 receptions, 703 yards) is Joseph’s No. 1 target. Defensively, the Jaguars return eight starters and should be solid on that side.

The SWAC East race shapes up as a two-team battle between reigning champion Jackson State and Alabama State, the preseason favorite.

Jackson State has experience on its side with 51 lettermen returning, including eight starters on offense and seven on defense. Senior quarterback Clayton Moore (1,863 yards, 11 touchdowns) developed into the offensive leader and guided the Tigers to five straight wins down the stretch after becoming starter three games into the season. The secondary is the strength of Jackson State’s defense with All-SWAC cornerback Qua Cox and safety Cameron Loeffler as the leaders.

Alabama State has had an impressive run the past three seasons, tying for the best record in the East. But all the Hornets have to show for their success is  an appearance in the 2010 championship game. The Hornets’  fate this season hinges in a large degree on how successful they are in replacing two-year starting quarterback Greg Jenkins Redshirt sophomore Daniel Duhart and junior transfer Arsenio Favor, who played two seasons at Southern Mississippi, are the leading candidates to replace Jenkins.  Whoever starts will handoff to one of the conference’s top runners, Isaiah Crowell (842 rushing yards), a 2012 All-SWAC pick and  2013 SWAC Newcomer of the Year after transferring from the University of Georgia, where he was the 2011 SEC Freshman of the Year. The Hornets’ defense will have a different look complements of first-year coordinator Kevin Ramsey, who spent the previous four seasons at Texas Southern. Ramsey is known for his attacking style of defenses that put heavy pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

The question in the MEAC is who will challenge Bethune-Cookman for the top spot. With 15 starters returning, the Wildcats are well-stocked to repeat as conference champions and challenge for the top spot among HBCUs. The Wildcats, No. 23 in The Sports Network Preseason FCS Poll, will have formidable offense. Their attack features running back Isidore Jackson (1,069 yards) and a trio of veteran quarterbacks in Quentin Williams, Jackie Wilson and Brodrick Waters. The Wildcats boast an aggressive, ballhawking defense that returns seven starters. Defensive backs Nick Addison, Tim Burke and Dion Hanks return to a secondary that had 20 interceptions.

South Carolina State hopes to rebound from its first losing record in 12 seasons. The Bulldogs have brought back former line coach Joe Blackwell to coordinate their offense, which was 10th among the conference’s 11 teams in scoring (18.5 points a game) and eighth in total yards (308.0). Blackwell hopes to get more production from quarterback Richard Cue. The Bulldogs uncharacteristically struggled on defense, particularly against the run, as they allowed 363.3 yards a game with 175.1 of those coming on the ground. A healthy Joe Thomas at linebacker should help in that department.

North Carolina Central and North Carolina A&T are looking to move up in the standings after tying for third place last season with Delaware State. North Carolina A&T returns four starting offensive linemen along with quarterback Lewis Kindle. But they have questions at running back. The defense should be strong with seven starters returning.

North Carolina Central has high expectations in Coach Henry Frazier III’s third season despite having to retool a defensive unit that lost eight starters. The Eagles expect a big year from quarterback Jordan Reid, who became the starter in the third game last season.

Earl Holmes begins his first full season as coach at Florida A&M after replacing Joe Taylor on an interim basis with two games remaining last season. Holmes inherits the MEAC’s top quarterback in Damien Fleming, giving the Rattlers hope.

Howard, Norfolk State, Delaware State Hampton, Morgan State and Savannah State – have too many holes to plug and too much ground to cover to contend for the title.

History says the 2013 SIAC race will be a replay of the 2012 championship chase with Tuskegee and Miles slugging it out in the West and Fort Valley State going toe-to-toe in the East. They are the only schools to win the title during the last 20 seasons.

Tuskegee is the defending champion, and the Golden Tigers have 13 preseason all-conference picks on hand who are eager to repeat. Quarterback Justin Nared will have to play a bigger role in the offense to compensate for the loss of 2012 Offensive Player of the Year Derrick Washington at running back.

Miles, the 2011 conference champion, returns 15 starters, including offensive headliners David Thomas( 2,059 passing yards and13 touchdowns) and running back Floyd Graves (796 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns). The defense has to avoid breakdowns in crucial situations in order for the Golden Bears to regain their championship form.

Stillman could be the spoiler in the West. The Tigers are a dangerous offensive team, led by quarterback Josh Straughan (1,849 passing yards and 14 touchdowns) and are capable of pulling off an upset any Saturday. But they don’t have enough horses to compete for the division crown.

Albany State is poised to regain the title that it last won the crown in 2010 with eight returning defensive starters. All-American free safety Dexter Moody is bulwark of the Golden Rams’ defense. The Golden Rams’ offense got a significant upgrade at quarterback in Grambling State transfer Frank Rivers. He threw for 967 yards and 10 touchdowns in six starts for Grambling last season.

Fort Valley hopes to rebuild on the fly as it pursues its first conference championship since 1999. The Wildcats must replace All-SIAC quarterback Antonio Henton and Chris Slaughter, their top receiver. Their defense, which forced a conference-best 40 turnovers and is led by linebacker Leron Furr, will have to shoulder the load until the offense jells.

Both division winners probably won’t be determined until the final weekend of the season,when Tuskegee hosts Miles and Fort Valley and Albany State meet in the Fountain City Classic in Columbus, Ga.

Tennessee State is picked third in the Ohio Valley Conference. But with 64 returning lettermen, including all 11 starters on the defensive unit that was No. 1 in the OVC, the Tigers are legitimate title contenders. All-American cornerback Steven Godbolt III led the FCS with six interceptions last season and is the defensive leader for the Big Blue.

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