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Fans of Black College Football can expect an intriguing and highly competitive 2015 season.

The season gets underway Thursday night with defending Black College National Champion Alcorn State playing up a level against Georgia Tech. The Braves don’t figure to fare well against the Yellow Jackets, but they are the team to beat among HBCUs. They enter the season ranked 20th in The Sporting News FCS top 25 after posting a 9-3 record in 2014 and winning the SWAC championship and are No. 1 among HBCUs. Quarterback John Gibbs Jr. (1,006 rushing yards, 2,482 passing yards, 33 total touchdowns), the 2014 Black College Offensive Player of the Year, returns for his senior season and will lead an offensive unit that averaged 493 yards and 44 points a game.The Braves should easily be the class of the SWAC East Division.

Alabama State lured highly successful Coach Brian Jenkins away from Bethune-Cookman, where he won or shared the MEAC title four times during his five-year tenure, in hope of closing the gap on Alcorn after underachieving the past several seasons. Jenkins will rely on hot-and-cold quarterback Daniel Duhart (2,318 passing yards, 11 touchdowns) to lead the Hornets’ offense. The Hornets should get a good idea about their season early on.

Their first three games are against Tennessee State, Alcorn and Grambling State. A three-way battle to escape the East Division cellar is shaping up between Alabama A&M, Jackson State and Mississippi Valley State. The common dominator among the trio is that each school’s coach is in his second season. Optimism abounds at Alabama A&M the heels on the Bulldogs’ 4-8 record in Coach James’ Spady’s first season. Four of the Bulldogs’ losses were by a total of 15 points, and they return a trio of proven running backs in sophomores Harvey Harris (694 yards) and Byran Brower (466 yards) and senior Brandon Eldemire (553 yards). The key will be finding a quarterback to run their Pistol offense.

Embattled Jackson State coach Harold Jackson is hanging his hopes on preseason All-SWAC quarterback LaMontiez Ivy and a defense that has been retooled by highly regarded coordinator Alonzo Lee.

Mississippi Valley was in the bottom two of the conference in virtually every major statistical category in 2014 with a lack of depth being a major factor. Coach Rick Comegy hopes a strong recruiting class solved that problem, but inexperience will still be an issue. But the Braves are likely to face a stern challenge from Grambling State just to win their conference championship and a berth in the inaugural Celebration Bowl opposite the MEAC champion.

Grambling State looks like the biggest obstacle between Alcorn and second straight SWAC title. The G-Men surprisingly finished second in the SWAC West a year ago in Coach Broderick Fobbs’ first season missed out on playing in the conference championship when they lost in the Bayou Classic. The G-Men, who return 24 seniors, will be strong along both lines. Chad Williams, Chester Rogers and Verlon Hunter provide a solid offensive front that will allow senior quarterback Johnathan Williams (2,454 passing yards, 18 touchdowns) to run the balanced old school attack that Fobbs likes.

Southern, the defending West champion and the 2013 conference champ, has a ton of experienced players returning across the board, led by sophomore quarterback Austin Howard (2,334 yards, 17 touchdowns). However, the Jaguars had to play catch up during fall practice after having spring drills canceled because of Academic Progress Rate (APR) sanctions, and they will have restrictions on practice time during the season as well. That could give Grambling enough of an edge to win the division.

Texas Southern could be the spoiler in the division after posting a 5-6 record last season. The Tigers’ defense will get a boost with the return to health of 2013 All-SWAC lineman Amir Bloom. Bloom will team with linebacker Darian Claiborne, 2014 SWAC Newcomer of the Year after transferring from Texas A&M, as the leaders of the defense that first-year coordinator Heishma Northern has installed.

Prairie View A&M is rebooting under first-year coach Willie Simmons, who didn’t have spring drills because of APR sanctions. The Panthers have some talent on hand, especially at running back with preseason All-America Johnta Hebert (1,063 rushing yards) and Courtney Brown, who rushed 1,000 yards in 2013 but miss all of last season with an injury. But they don’t have enough to be legitimate championship contenders.

Arkansas-Pine Bluff has boat load of problems to solve on both sides of the ball. The Golden Lions were last in the SWAC in scoring defense and next to last in scoring offense. The prospects for improvement aren’t promising as Coach Monte Coleman will rely on inexperienced starters all over the place, most glaringly at quarterback, where redshirt sophomore Marcus Terrell takes over for career passing leader Benjamin Anderson.

The MEAC has established itself as the most competitive conference in Black College football. Last season’s five-way tie for the championship with Bethune-Cookman, Morgan State, North Carolina A&T, North Carolina Central and South Carolina State finishing in a deadlock bears that out. It’s likely that we will see a repeat in 2015, but look for another hotly contested race. North Carolina A&T, South Carolina State and Bethune-Cookman are the frontrunners.

North Carolina A&T went into the 2014 season finale with a chance to lock up the title with a win against North Carolina Central, but the Aggies lost. The defeat them has them highly motivated for 2015 and could be the edge they need. The Aggies boast the conference’s leading rusher and preseason Offensive Player of the Year in junior running back Tarik Cohen (121.8 yards a game).

Perennial championship contender South Carolina State will be in the thick of things again. The Bulldogs will rely on their tried and true formula of strong defense, led by lineman Javon Hargrave, 2014 MEAC Defensive Player of the Year, and a ball-control offense.

Bethune-Cookman has new look with the departure of Coach Brian Jenkins to Alabama State. But in reality it will be the same look for the Wildcats, who won or shared four conference championships during Jenkins’ five-year tenure. Terry Sims, who coached with Jenkins for 20 years and is his successor, says nothing will change as he will follow the same blueprint on offense and defense that led to the Wildcats’ success. That means a heavy dose of the running game led by running back Anthony Jordan (579 yards, 12 touchdowns) and an aggressive defense.

Morgan State and North Carolina Central were surprise teams a year ago as they captured a share of the title with first-year, first-time coaches – Lee Hull at Morgan State and Jerry Mack at North Carolina Central. That will be a tough act for them to follow in 2015 even though both teams should be improved with a year of experience behind them.

Morgan State’s big gun is 5-8 junior running back Herb Walker who led the MEAC in total rushing yards (1,408). North Carolina Central has 15 starters returning. Quarterback Malcolm Bell (1,982 passing yards, 15 touchdowns) and All-MEAC wide receiver Quentin Atkinson (49 catches, 615 yards) give the Eagles a dangerous pass-catch combination.

Hampton coach Connell Maynor looks to return the Pirates to respectability in year two of his regime. Maynor has turned to University of Virginia transfer quarterback David Watford to lead the offense. But improved overall depth will be the tale of the tape when it comes to how the Pirates fare. Norfolk State and Delaware State have brought in new coaches with an eye on moving up in the standings.

Latrell Scott brings a reputation for quick turnarounds with him to Norfolk State. Scott was 19-4 in two seasons at Virginia State, and he led the Trojans to two CIAA Northern Division titles, the 2014 conference championship and the first Division II playoff berth in school history. The first order of business for Scott is to inject life into the Spartans’ anemic offense that averaged 11.7 points a game and ninth among 11 teams in total offense (241 yards a game). Running back Gerald Johnson, a transfer from Old Dominion, will be called on to carry the load in the running game.

Kenneth Carter takes over an offensively challenged squad at Delaware State as well. The Hornets were last in scoring (11.3) and total offense (228.8). Florida A&M, Howard and Savannah State are ineligible for the conference championship and the accompanying Celebration Bowl because of APR sanctions. Even if they were eligible, it’s highly unlikely that any of them would contend for the championship.

Veteran coach Alex Wood faces an uphill battle as he tries to return Florida A&M to its past glory. Wood has installed a no-huddle offense with junior Carson Royal taking over at quarterback for four-year starter Damien Fleming. The question facing the Rattlers is their offensive line’s ability to protect Royal and open holes for the running game.

Howard is also breaking in a new quarterback and 2014 MEAC co-Offensive Player of the Year Greg McGhee graduated. Jamie Cummings, DeVaughn Johnson and Kalen Johnson are vying to replace McGhee. The Bison were hit hard by injuries in 2014, forcing several young players into action. The experience they gained should pay off this season.

Savannah State is working on a streak of 16 consecutive losing seasons and enters 2015 with a 21-game losing streak. Third-year coach Earnest Wilson has focused on recruiting bigger, stronger athletes, but there is still work to be done – lots and lots of work.

Tennessee State, which plays in the Ohio Valley Conference, could be in for a difficult season.  Defensive end Gabe Terry (11.5) is one of only three returning defensive starters. The Tigers will also have several new faces on offense, most notably at quarterback where Coach Rod Reed will choose between Ronald Butler and O’Shay Ackerman-Carter to replace career passing leader Mike Garman.

This could be a season of change in the SIAC East Division. Coach Mike White, who kept Albany State atop the conference throughout his 18-year tenure, retired following last season and has resurfaced at Benedict. Albany State is still the top dog in the East, but the move has closed the gap between the Golden Rams and the rest of the division. Coach Dan Land will lean heavily on running back Jarvis Small (1,169 rushing yards, 13 touchdowns). But quarterback is question mark with the graduation loss of Frank Rivers. Caleb Edmonds, Ta’Keevian Harris and Rodricous Gates are vying to replace Rivers. Land has yet to name a starter.

Fort Valley State is Albany State’s most likely challenger. The Wildcats should have enough offense to make a run at the top spot with quarterback Malcolm Eady and running back Otis Brown returning. But their defense needs to pick up its performance from a year ago. If that happens, the division title will likely be decided when the Wildcats play Albany State in the Fountain City Classic in the season finale. White, 112-51 overall and 87-24 in the SIAC with Albany State, faces tough sledding at Benedict, which has only had two winning seasons in 19 years since reinstating football. The Tigers won’t contend for the division crown, but they should be good enough to finish ahead of Clark Atlanta and Morehouse.

It should be business as usual in the SIAC West Division. That means it will be a two-team battle for the top spot between Tuskegee and Miles that won’t be decided until those team meet Nov. 7 at Tuskegee. Give the edge to Tuskegee, the defending SIAC champion. Dual-threat quarterback Kevin Lacey and wide receiver Marquel Gardner will lead an explosive offensive unit that averaged a conference-best 34.8 points a game en route to its second straight Division II playoff appearance. Running back Dennis Norfleet, a transfer from the University of Michigan, gives the Golden Tigers a home run hitter in the backfield.

Miles hopes to overtake Tuskegee with a powerful running game that averaged 203.3 yards a game and is led by preseason All-SIAC running back Jonathan Clark (811 rushing yards, three touchdowns).

Stillman looked liked the darkhorse in the division race until All-SIAC quarterback Josh Straughan (2,223 passing yards, 26 touchdowns) went down for the season with a shoulder injury. With or without Straighan, defense is an issue for the Tigers. Coach Teddy Keaton recruited four junior college transfers and a number of freshmen to shore up that side of the ball.

Lane, Kentucky State and Central State will again play the role of division also-rans. Derrick Burroughs returns as head coach at Lane after spending 2014 as defensive coordinator at Jackson State. The Dragons showed steady progress under Burroughs’ first stint from 2010-13 and were 6-4 in his final season.

Winston-Salem State has reloaded and is ready to reclaim the CIAA championship under second-year coach Kienus Boulware. The Rams lost to Virginia State in the 2014 conference title game after winning the crown the previous two seasons. The Rams enter the season ranked 24th in the AFCA Division II poll despite losing all 11 defensive starters and their co-starting quarterback, Rudy Johnson and Phillip Sims. They entered fall practice with nine candidates at quarterback. The field has narrowed to four – Justin Johnson, Rod Tinsley, Kevin Sousa and Reggie Green. Boulware isn’t likely to name the starter until the day before the season opener. Johnson is the only experienced signal caller.

Fayetteville State has played bridesmaid to Winston-Salem in the Southern Division each of the last two seasons under Coach Lawrence Kershaw. The Broncos will look for increased production from All-CIAA running back Andre Montgomery (760 yards, five touchdowns).

Things are looking up for Livingstone, which had its first non-losing season since 1999 with a 5-5 record. Finishing third in the division would be big. Shaw has to fix its offense, which averaged 286.5 yards and 18 points a game, in order to have a shot at being competitive.

Veteran coach Kermit Blount has his hands full in his first season at Johnson C. Smith. The Golden Bulls were the lowest scoring team in the conference (13.2 points a game), and they only had one rushing touchdown.

There is a glimmer of hope at Saint Augustine’s following their 3-7 finish. Michael Morand took over as head coach following the Falcons’ 41-9 opening loss to Indiana (Pa.), after having been hired as offensive coordinator a week after the start of training camp. Quarterback Cyril Davis (1,686 passing yards, 11 touchdowns) and running back Rod Davenport (1,133 rushing yards, six touchdowns) provide offensive punch. But they are two of just six returning starters.

Don’t expect much of a drop off at Virginia State even though Byron Thweatt has taken over for Latrell Scott, who guided the Trojans to back-to-back Northern Division titles and the 2014 CIAA crown. The Trojans return 42 lettermen, including eight starters on offense. Junior quarterback Tarian Ayres (2,132 passing yards, 15 touchdowns) and wide receiver Javion Smallwood (59 catches, 979 yards, seven touchdowns) are the guns.

Virginia Union is on the rise. Mark James guided the Panthers to a 7-3 record in his first season after they were 3-7 2013. The Panthers return six offensive starters, but only two on the offensive line. They will also break in a new quarterback. This could be Bowie State’s year.

The Bulldogs return 11 defensive and nine offensive starters from last year’s 6-4 squad that missed the conference championship game by one game. Elizabeth City State will try to bounce back from back-to-back subpar seasons with a senior laden squad that includes 14 starters. The Vikings are inexperienced at quarterback and running back, which could pose a problem. Josh Joyner (135 rushing yards, one touchdown) is their top returning ball-carrier.

The good news for Chowan is eight defensive starters return; the bad news is that unit was the worst in the CIAA, allowing 473.1 yards and 42.6 points a game. Senior quarter Ryan Nolan is the Hawks’ offensive catalyst. He produced nearly 1,000 total yards last season. The running backs are inexperienced. Combine those factors, and it looks like another long season for Chowan.

Herb Pickens is Lincoln’s third coach in four years. The Lions are 10-60 since reinstating the football program in 2008. Junior running back Stephen Scott (956 rushing yards, three touchdowns) is one of their few bright spots.

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