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Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl – December 19, 2015
Players of the North Carolina A&T State University Aggies during the 2015 Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl. Phil Ellsworth / ESPN Images

Sneak preview of what’s ahead this season in HBCU football

N.C. A&T State University, after ending 2015 on top, is the top team in preseason polls

This should be an exciting year in black college football. It seems like just about every historically black college conference has some great teams and players. All the better to attract a tremendous amount of interest from the fans around the country.

North Carolina A&T State University is the team to beat in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC). The Aggies are ranked No. 1 in the preseason SBN Sports Network Black College Football Poll. N.C. A&T is also ranked No. 25 in the STATS FCS Media top 25 Poll and the NCAA FCS Coaches Poll. The Aggies earned a share of the MEAC title last season. They won the Celebration Bowl, defeating Alcorn State University, 41-34. In that game, N.C. A&T running back Tarik Cohen rushed for 295 yards and scored three touchdowns.

Cohen, a 5-foot-7, 179-pound senior, led the conference in rushing with 977 yards. He was the conference leader in rushing yards per game (122.1), all-purpose yards per game (141.1) and nine touchdowns. He is the MEAC preseason offensive player of the year.

Bethune-Cookman University is also expected to have a strong team. The Wildcats grabbed a share of the conference crown last season. Bethune-Cookman is led by its junior wide receiver Jawill Davis, who had 39 receptions for 788 yards and six touchdowns last season.

North Carolina Central University should be in the mix. Like N.C. A&T and Bethune-Cookman, the Eagles notched a share of the MEAC championship last season. N.C. Central will lean on senior quarterback Malcolm Bell to run the offense. Bell received preseason first-team All-MEAC honors.

MEAC PLAYERS TO WATCH: Tarik Cohen, running back, N.C. A&T, senior; Twarn Mixson, wide receiver, Hampton University, senior; Jawill Davis, wide receiver, Bethune-Cookman, junior; Darius Leonard, linebacker, South Carolina State University, junior; Jeremy Miles, linebacker, N.C. Central, senior.

What’s on tap in the SWAC

Alcorn State could be a major force again. The Braves have won two consecutive Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) championships and first-year head coach Fred McNair has a good foundation coming back from last year’s Celebration Bowl team. Alcorn State quarterback Lenorris Footman returns after putting together a magnificent season. Footman displayed a strong arm last season, passing for 1,106 yards and 14 touchdowns. He also rushed for 1,023 yards and scored 11 touchdowns.

Alcorn State should be at the top of the class in the SWAC Eastern Division. However, Alabama State University and Jackson State University have put together solid teams, too. The Hornets will be led by linebacker Kourtney Berry, the SWAC preseason defensive player of the year, who led the conference with 130 total tackles last year. Berry also just happens to be one of the top linebackers in the country.

Speaking of defense, Javancy Jones is likely to anchor the Jackson State defensive line. But Jones, who had 90 total and 39 solo tackles and nine sacks and was an all-SWAC preseason pick, has taken a leave of absence from the team to attend to personal/family issues with his mother, JSU coach Tony Hughes told The Clarion-Ledger.

Prairie View A&M University should make a run at the top spot in the SWAC Western Division. The Panthers have quarterback Trey Green, who can efficiently run and throw the ball down the field. Grey threw for 2,614 yards with 21 touchdowns and just three interceptions last year.

Of course, there’s still a lot of competition in this division with Grambling State University and Southern University. The Tigers will rely on ball control with running back Martez Carter, who had 876 yards and scored nine touchdowns last season. Southern has running back Lenard Tillery to provide an explosive ground attack. Tillery is the SWAC preseason offensive player of the year. He had 1,211 yards and scored a league-best 14 touchdowns last season.

SWAC PLAYERS TO WATCH: Lenard Tillery, running back, Southern, senior; Kourtney Berry, linebacker, Alabama State, senior; Trey Green, quarterback, Prairie View A&M, senior; Javancy Jones, defensive end, Jackson State, senior; Derrick Griffin, wide receiver, Texas Southern University, sophomore.

In the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA), Winston-Salem State University and Bowie State University could do battle for the conference championship again. Winston-Salem State is the defending conference champion. Bowie State lost to Winston-Salem State for the CIAA title last year, but landed a spot in the NCAA Division II playoffs. This year though it looks like Bowie State could have a leg up on its rival Winston-Salem State for the No. 1 spot.

Bowie State wide receiver Nyme Manns is one of the most exciting players in the CIAA after recording 13 receiving touchdowns last year. The Bulldogs defensive stalwarts include lineman Sean Copeland (48 total tackles) and linebacker Kevaughn Townsend (79 total tackles).

Virginia Union University is expected to challenge Bowie State in the Northern Division. The Panthers top players are All-CIAA selections defensive back Rodeshawn Joseph (30 total tackles, five interceptions) and defensive lineman Paulin Miano (57 total tackles, 25 tackles for loss, 11 sacks).

In the Southern Division, Winston-Salem State should be able to move the football behind offensive linemen Jac’que Polite and Tim Samuels. Fayetteville State University will push the Rams for the division crown. Fayetteville State has a great secondary with defensive backs Travis Scales (65 total and 38 solo tackles) and Eric Henderson (54 total and 37 solo tackles).

CIAA PLAYERS TO WATCH: Nyme Manns, wide receiver, Bowie State, senior; Stephen Scott, running back, Lincoln University (Pennsylvania), senior; Paulin Miano, defensive end, Virginia Union, senior; Travis Scales, defensive back, Fayetteville State, senior; Jac’que Polite, offensive lineman, Winston-Salem State, senior.

In the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC), Tuskegee University comes into the season ranked 17th in the D2football.com top 25 and 17th in the American Football Coaches Association preseason poll. The Golden Tigers could win the SIAC championship. Tuskegee is led by defensive lineman Julian Morgan, who was named the SIAC preseason defensive player of the year. Morgan had 54 total tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss and nine sacks. The Golden Tigers finished with a 10-3 overall record and advanced to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Division II playoffs before losing to the University of West Georgia.

Despite the preseason national ranking and playoff success, Miles College should challenge Tuskegee for the top spot in the SIAC West Division. Last season, Miles won the SIAC championship, defeating Albany State University, 20-7. Miles has two brilliant offensive players in quarterback David Whipple and running back Jamarcus Nance.

Albany State could bring home the SIAC East Division championship. Albany State running back Jarvis Small is the SIAC preseason offensive player of the year. Small had 1,037 yards and scored 11 touchdowns last year.

SBN Sports Network Black College Football Preseason Poll

  1. North Carolina A&T State University
  2. Alcorn State University
  3. Bethune-Cookman University
  4. Prairie View A&M University
  5. Grambling State University
  6. North Carolina Central University
  7. Tuskegee University
  8. South Carolina State University
  9. Southern University
  10. Bowie State University

Donald Hunt, a writer for the Philadelphia Tribune, is a longtime ESPN contributor who has covered Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Follow him on Twitter at @DHUNTTRIB.