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HBCU Football

Jackson State may get the attention, but SWAC opponents aren’t backing down

The Tigers may be the favorite, but teams are ready to challenge them this season

Southern coach Eric Dooley played for legendary Grambling coach Eddie Robinson, the third-winningest coach in NCAA history.

He worked for legendary Southern coach Pete Richardson, who led the Jaguars to four Black college national championships in 17 years.

The lessons Dooley learned from each of those men is why he refuses to put Jackson State on a pedestal.

Respect? Absolutely. Fear? Absolutely not.

“We don’t look at what other folks are doing. We take it one game at a time. So the only team we can see at this time is Florida Memorial,” Dooley said. “We make them understand everyone is the same.

“I think the whole conference is great. I’ve seen it and I’ve watched it when it was on top and it’s there again. I think everybody deserves the credit.”

Florida A&M coach Willie Simmons feels the same way. So does Prairie View A&M coach Bubba McDowell and Grambling coach Hue Jackson.

They each acknowledge Jackson State, the defending Southwestern Athletic Conference champion, has a talented roster and one of the highest-profile coaches in the U.S. in Deion Sanders.

Jackson State quarterback Shedeur Sanders, the FCS Freshman of the Year, passed for 3,231 yards with 30 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Travis Hunter, the first five-star player to sign with a historically Black school, will play cornerback and receiver for the Tigers.

The Tigers’ defense, which led the nation in sacks last season, is better at every level, if Deion Sanders is to be believed.

Jackson State has been picked to win the SWAC’s East Division, and Southern is the favorite in the West Division.

“I have so much respect for Deion, what he’s done and what he’s doing. He’s a phenomenal recruiter, coach and friend,” said Jackson, “but I don’t see myself chasing Jackson State.

“We’re making Grambling the best we can be. It might look like we’re chasing, but what we’re really doing is getting Grambling back to where it should rightfully be, which is an elite program.”

McDowell said, “Chasing them? Absolutely. As long as they haven’t lost, we’re chasing them right now. But can we beat them? I think we can.”

Florida A&M opens the season Sept. 4 in the Orange Blossom Classic in Miami against Jackson State. Last year, Jackson State beat FAMU 7-6.

There’s no doubt, said Simmons, about whether FAMU can compete with Jackson State.

“We feel like our brand is the strongest brand out there,” Simmons said. “We don’t have to worry about anyone else does. We are the first LeBron James school. We were the school featured on ESPN’s Why Not Us last season.

“When you come to FAMU, you’re coming to one of the strongest brands in the country — not just HBCUs, because we have our own great thing going on.”

Just like last year, no one will be surprised if the winner represents the East Division in the SWAC championship game.

Jackson State and Sanders have made playing at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) fashionable. Sanders signed two players — Hunter and four-star receiver Kevin Coleman last year — who were both ranked in the ESPN 300.

Now, when players enter the transfer portal, HBCU programs provide real options. So several teams have received an influx of talent as former four- and three-star players transfer to their programs.

They’re hurriedly trying to improve their facilities, from locker rooms to dorms, to take advantage of the momentum of HBCU programs.

“We all understand that a lot of times football is the front porch of the university. The perception that many people have about your school can be tied directly to your football team,” Simmons said. “We’re one of the most visible entities along with with Marching 100 and we have to take advantage of that.”

Grambling hired Jackson, a two-time NFL head coach. Prairie View A&M promoted McDowell, a former NFL player who was a longtime assistant for the team. Southern hired Dooley from Prairie View A&M, which advanced to the SWAC championship last season, when four turnovers doomed the Panthers.

“I thought we had them last year, but it’s very hard to beat a good team with four turnovers,” McDowell said. “We want to get back to that game and, hopefully, play a better game.”

Jean-Jacques Taylor, a native of Dallas, is an award-winning journalist who has covered the Dallas Cowboys and the NFL for 25 years and is president of JJT Media Group.