Perhaps it is getting too cliche, corny or common for coaches to emphasize the importance of conference games. It's supposed to be simple. Win your conference, get the automatic bid to the FCS playoffs.
While that may be the case for the large majority of FCS teams, in the Southwestern Athletic Conference, those games make or break your season, literally because the highest reward is winning the SWAC title.
If last year's title race was any indication, 2012 should put forth an even better show.
Take, for example, Alabama State, which finished 8-3 overall and 7-2 in conference. In the first eight weeks of the season, the Hornets had six wins and their only loss came against FBS opponent Eastern Michigan, 14-7. They then went 2-2 the rest of the season, losing to Alabama A&M by one point and Southern by three points, and it cost them the Eastern Division title.
"It ached and hurt to know that we did not get an opportunity to play for the championship," coach Reggie Barlow said.
"We know as a team and a coaching staff how we let both those games get away from us. We had it in our grasp and didn't really take advantage of it."
After beginning the season with an 0-2 record, Alabama A&M reeled off seven straight wins, lost to Jackson State, but won the finale at Prairie View A&M, 17-15, to clinch a spot in the SWAC title game. The Bulldogs went on to lose to Grambling, 16-15, after leading by 15 at halftime. Coach Anthony Jones shouldn't need to find any new motivation for his returning players.
"We're looking forward to having another successful year," Jones said. "We are expecting our offense to lead us due to all 11 starters returning. They will be expected to step up their game as competition will be high."
Defending champion Grambling State started 1-4, but after that it went on to win its final seven games. It was coach Doug Williams' first year of his second stint at the helm for Grambling. Even after a SWAC title, little time was spent celebrating, while more time was spent acclimating.
"This year, I got a chance to let all the players go through our offseason program," Williams said, "the coaches get acclimated with the guys and then the fact that we had a good spring and a season behind, we have a better idea of the players, the guys that we're going to have to depend on, and the guys, what they can do and what they can't do."
Jackson State finished with a 9-2 record, including 7-2 against conference opponents. In any other year, that would warrant an appearence in the SWAC Championship Game. However, the NCAA is still serving the Tigers with a two- year punishment for poor academic progress rates, and the conference is not letting the Tigers play for the championship.
In the nation's power conferences like CAA Football, Big Sky, Missouri Valley and Southern Conference, teams can survive seasons and hope for games after the regular season even if they aren't the best team in its league or division.
In the SWAC, it is simple: If you don't win your conference games, you can't win a championship.
"I was still disappointed at not going to the SWAC championship," Prairie View A&M coach Heishma Northern said, "and some people still congratulated me on a good season. But I was not satisfied as I want to change the culture here to the point where if we don't win the championship, then it's not a good season."
Following is a team-by-team breakdown of the 2012 SWAC race.
The Sports Network's predicted order of finish:
1. Alabama State
2. Alabama A&M
3. Jackson State
4. Alcorn State
5. Mississippi Valley State
1. Grambling State
2. Arkansas-Pine Bluff
3. Prairie View A&M
5. Texas Southern
1. ALABAMA STATE HORNETS (8-3 overall, 7-2 SWAC)
COACH: Reggie Barlow (27-29 in five seasons at Alabama State; 27-29 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (8 offense/7 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Greg Jenkins, Sr. (125-of-210, 1,475 yards, 11 TD, 5 INT; 330 yards rushing, 7 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: FS Kejuan Riley, Sr. (75 TT, 1 TFL, 9 INT, 4 PBU, 13 PD)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: WR T.C. McWilliams, Sr. (35 receptions, 403 yards, 2 TD)
RB Isaiah Crowell, So. (University of Georgia transfer)
RB Quendarius McKibben, Jr. (87 carries, 257 yards, 3 TD)
WR Landon Jones, Sr.
WR Nehemiah Henry, Sr.
LT Terren Jones, Sr.
C Edmund Davis, Jr.
LG Jaron Bush, So.
RT Ron Hall, Jr.
DE Carlton Jones, Jr. (38 TT, 11 TFL, 5 sacks, 6 PD, 2 FR, 1 INT)
DT DreQuay Everett, Sr. (33 TT, 6 TFL, 1.5 sacks)
DT Derrick Billups, Jr.
DL Brandon Roberts, Sr.
CB Saeed Lee, Sr. (45 TT, 3 TFL, 5 INT, 11 PBU, 16 PD)
LB Brandon Slater, Jr. (59 TT, 6.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 3 FF, 2 FR)
LB Winton Steward, Sr.
PK/P Bobby Wenzig, Sr. (31-of-35 PAT, 15-of-25 FG; 70 punts, 41.5 YPP)
BIGGEST LOSS: WR Nick Andrews (78 receptions, 1,095 yards, 10 TD)
OUTLOOK: Alabama State should contend for another run at a SWAC title in 2012 after coming short for a berth in the championship game last season. The Hornets' three losses last year came by 11 points, which included a one-point loss to Alabama A&M and a three-point loss to Southern. Both losses cost Alabama State the Eastern Division title for the second straight year. Eight starters return to an offense that averaged 26.7 points per game. It all starts with quarterback Greg Jenkins, who is a dual-threat problem for SWAC defenses. Jones, an All-America tackle, and four other experienced counterparts should have no trouble clearing paths for Georgia transfer and 2011 SEC Freshman of the Year Isiah Crowell. Off-the-field troubles forced the Bulldogs to release their freshmen star after he was arrested with felony weapons charges. Head coach Reggie Barlow will have to develop Crowell into the Hornets' scheme without any more issues outside of football. Alabama State's defense should be the team's strength. The Hornets ranked in the top five in the FCS in takeaways for the second straight season, leading the SWAC with 22 interceptions and 15 fumble recoveries. Passing will not be easy for opponents. The secondary features two All-America returnees in free safety Kejuan Riley and cornerback Saeed Lee. Riley enters his final season for Hornets with 17 career interceptions - tying the program record - while Lee finished last season with 16 passes defended. ASU opens its new on-campus stadium on Thanksgiving Day versus Tuskegee. By then, the Hornets will know whether they will play for a SWAC title.
Sept. 2 - vs. Bethune-Cookman (Orlando, Fla.)
Sept. 8 - vs. Mississippi Valley State
Sept. 15 - at Grambling State
Sept. 20 - vs. Arkansas-Pine Bluff
Sept. 29 - at Alcorn State
Oct. 6 - vs. Texas Southern
Oct. 13 - vs. Jackson State
Oct. 27 - vs. Alabama A&M
Nov. 3 - at Prairie View A&M
Nov. 10 - at Southern
Nov. 22 - vs. Tuskegee
2. ALABAMA A&M BULLDOGS (3-8 overall; 2-7 SWAC)
COACH: Anthony Jones (72-45 in nine seasons at Alabama A&M; 90-57 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 17 (11 offense/6 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: RB Kaderius Lacey, Sr. (285 carries, 1,143 yards, 8 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: SS/LB Vernon Marshall, Sr. (75 TT, 11 TFL, 3 sacks, 1 INT)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Deaunte Mason, Sr. (160-of-325, 1,996 yards, 11 TD, 7 INT; 512 rushing yards, 3 TD)
WR G'Alonzo Milton, Sr. (29 receptions, 380 yards, 8 TD)
WR Montarius Smith, So. (49 receptions, 669 yards)
WR/KR Terrance Pride, So. (21 KR, 497 yards)
OL Jamal Johnson-Webb, Sr.
OL Justin Goodrich, Jr.
OL Joaquenssi Eugene, Sr.
LB Denzel Cotton, Sr. (42 TT, 6 TFL, 1 sack, 1 INT)
DL Montay Rover, Sr. (37 TT, 6 TFL, 1 sack, 1 FR)
DL Phillip Harvey, Jr.
DB Derrick Harris, Jr.
DB A. J. Clark, Jr.
PK/P Chance Wilson, Sr. (11-of-15 FG)
BIGGEST LOSS: DE Corey Hart (57 TT, 32 TFL, 17 sacks, 1 INT, 3 FR, 2 FF)
OUTLOOK: After losing a 16-15 heartbreaker in the SWAC title game (when they had a 15-0 halftime lead) the Bulldogs will have a great shot of making their sixth SWAC championship game in the last 10 years. Every starter returns to an offense led by All-SWAC and 3 1/2-year signal-caller Deaunte Mason. With Lacey coming off a breakout season in which he rushed for 1,143 yards and eight touchdowns, expect his numbers to grow with two years of eligibility still remaining. The Bulldogs won't have to rely on the run game too heavily with returning wide receivers such as Milton (29 receptions, 8 TD) and Smith (49 receptions, 669 yards). On defense, the Bulldogs lost five starters, including All-America Corey Hart and All-SWAC performer Willie Fuller, but Marshall and Cotton return to lead a defense that only allowed 311 yards per contest in 2011, good for 17th in the FCS. Coach Anthony Jones and his team understand what it takes to win the conference, however. Three of the team's last four games are on the road, at Alabama State, Jackson State and SEC foe Auburn. The Bulldogs should have no problem putting up points on the scoreboard, but the defense will have to earn its respect.
Sept. 1 - at Tuskegee
Sept. 8 - at Arkansas-Pine Bluff
Sept. 15 - vs. Prairie View A&M
Sept. 22 - at Texas Southern
Sept. 29 - vs. Grambling State
Oct. 6 - at Mississippi Valley State
Oct. 13 - vs. Alcorn State
Oct. 27 - at Alabama State
Nov. 3 - vs. Southern
Nov. 10 - at Jackson State
Nov. 17 - at Auburn
3. JACKSON STATE TIGERS (9-2 overall, 7-2 SWAC)
COACH: Rick Comegy (41-26 in six seasons at Jackson State; 149-77 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (7 offense/8 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: WR Rico Richardson, Sr. (37 receptions, 896 yards, 11 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: DE Joseph LeBeau, Sr. (75 TT, 22.5 TFL, 16 sacks, 1 PBU, 1 PD, 3 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Dedric McDonald, Sr.
QB Tevin Chapman, Jr.
RB Tommy Gooden, Jr. (89 carries, 597 yards, 3 TD)
RB B.J. Lee, Sr. (66 carries, 348 yards, 2 TD)
WR Michael Perkins, So. (24 receptions, 325 yards)
TE E.J. Drewrey, Sr.
OL Zion Pyatt, Sr.
OL Stephen Capler, Sr.
OL Maurice Brooks, Sr.
NT Jonathan Billups, Sr. (47 TT, 5.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 FR)
DL Luis McLeod, Sr.
DE Javarius Conner, Sr.
LB Milton Patterson, Sr. (56 TT, 12 TFL, 3 sacks, 1 INT)
LB Todd Wilcher, Jr. (76 TT, 7 TFL, 1 INT, 2 PBU)
CB Qua Cox, Jr. (34 TT, 3 INT, 9 PBU)
DB Richard Hughes, Sr.
DB Mike Hill, Sr.
PK Jabril Smith, Sr. (7-of-12 FG)
BIGGEST LOSSES: QB Casey Therriault (271-of-452, 3,791 yards, 27 TD, 15 INT; 9 rushing TD) and OL Vincent Jones (Jones died in mid-July following a battle agaisnt cancer. He enrolled at Jackson State last fall as a freshman.)
OUTLOOK: The biggest challenge for the Tigers heading into the season will be trying to replace Therriault, their record-setting quarterback. The two quarterbacks returning have very little collegiate experience. McDonald played in seven games last season, completing two passes, but as a redshirt freshman in 2010 he threw for 539 yards and two touchdowns. Last year's leading rushers, Gooden and Lee, return and should carry the offense. Speedy wide receiver Richardson led the FCS in averaging 23 yards per catch. The Tigers have another standout in Drewrey, making the switch from wide receiver to tight end and is a huge target for any quarterback at 6-foot-6, 230 pounds. Defensively, JSU should be solid. All-America defensive lineman LeBeau returns after collecting 16 sacks in 2011 - a program record - not to mention 22.5 tackles for a loss. Cox leads an experienced secondary which only allowed 166 yards passing per game last year. The Tigers will be hungry after they finished atop the Eastern Division last year with a 7-2 SWAC record, but were not allowed to play in the conference championship game as a result of APR penalties. Jackson State will play the 2012 season honoring fallen teammate Vincent Jones.
Sept. 1 - at Mississippi State
Sept. 8 - vs. Tennessee State (Memphis, Tenn.)
Sept. 15 - at Texas Southern
Sept. 22 - vs. Southern
Sept. 29 - vs. Prairie View A&M
Oct. 6 - at Arkansas-Pine Bluff
Oct. 13 - at Alabama State
Oct. 20 - vs. Mississippi Valley State
Nov. 3 - at Grambling State
Nov. 10 - vs. Alabama A&M
Nov. 17 - vs. Alcorn State
4. ALCORN STATE BRAVES (2-8 overall, 1-8 SWAC)
COACH: Jay Hopson (first season at Alcorn State and overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 17 (8 offense/9 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: WR/KR Terrance Lewis, Sr. (28 receptions, 489 yards, 5 TD; 12 PR for 157 yards, 1 TD, 21 KR, 492 yards, 2 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: LB William Thomas (66 TT, 9 TFL, 3 sacks, 1 INT, 3 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Darius Smith, Jr. (69-of-180, 1,044 yards, 9 TD, 11 INT)
QB Jordan Payne, Fr.
WR Rodney Whitmore, Jr. (11 receptions, 240 yards, 2 TD)
RB Arnold Walker, Jr. (142 carries, 713 yards, 3 TD)
RB, Anthony Williams, So. (51 carries, 218 yards, 1 TD)
OL Jacody Rose, Jr.
OL Brandon McDowell, Sr.
OL Johnathan Scott, So.
LB Robert Gainwell, Sr. (44 TT, 8 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 PBU, 1 PD, 2 FF)
CB Casey Freeman, So. (66 TT, 3.5 TFL, 3 INT)
CB Brandon Thompson, Sr. (55 TT, 2 INT, 7 PBU, 9 PD, 3 FR, 1 FF)
CB Jacques Caldwell, So.
DL Jermaine Turner, So. (29 TT, 6.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks)
DL Mauola Malaga, So.
DL Rickey Joseph, Jr.
BIGGEST LOSS: P/K Arturo Tamayo (69 punts, 41.6 YPP, 6-of-9 FG)
OUTLOOK: Alcorn State began its rebuilding process this offseason with the hiring of Hopson, the first-ever white head coach in the history of the SWAC. In the new era of Braves football, Hopson, who has stints as an assistant at Ole Miss, Southern Mississippi, Michigan and Memphis, filled out his coaching staff with former Alcorn State great Steve McNair's older brother Fred as a quarterbacks coach and Tony Pecoraro from North Alabama to lead the defense. Last season, the Braves recorded only one FCS victory against Mississippi Valley State, and finished 109th offensively in the FCS with 285 yards per game. One of the few bright spots for the Braves last year was stud kick returner Lewis, who returns for his senior season. Lewis averaged 114.7 all- purpose yards per game, had 28 receptions and five touchdowns as a receiver and scored two touchdowns returning kickoffs, and one score returning punts. It will take a couple years for Hopson to get the Braves competitive again. It won't be easy in his first season because Alcorn State's out-of-conference games are on the road at James Madison and Arkansas State.
Sept. 1 - vs. Grambling State (Shreveport, La.)
Sept. 8 - at James Madison
Sept. 15 - vs. Arkansas-Pine Bluff
Sept. 22 - at Arkansas State
Sept. 29 - vs. Alabama State
Oct. 6 - vs. Southern
Oct. 13 - at Alabama A&M
Oct. 20 - at Prairie View A&M
Nov. 3 - at Mississippi Valley State
Nov. 10 - vs. Texas Southern
Nov. 17 - at Jackson State
5. MISSISSIPPI VALLEY STATE DELTA DEVILS (1-10 overall, 1-8 SWAC)
COACH: Karl Morgan (1-20 in two seasons at Mississippi Valley State; 1-20 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (9 offense/5 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: RB Trey Bateaste, Sr. (139 carries, 543 yards, 3 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: DL Leployer Franklin, Jr. (65 TT, 14 TFL, 3 sacks, 6 PBU)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: RB Brandon Stansell, Sr. (100 carries, 396 yards)
QB Garrick Jones, Sr. (66-of-139, 811 yards, 7 TD, 5 INT)
QB Eddie Ivory, Sr.
WR Kenneth Dabney, Jr. (29 receptions, 286 yards, 1 TD)
WR Julian Stafford, So.
OL Wesley Steele, Jr.
OL Martin Davis, Jr.
OL Antonio Griggs, Jr.
OL Kevin James, Jr.
DL Javaris Fritz, Sr. (28 TT, 5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 2 PBU)
DL Robert Simpson, Jr. (32 TT, 5.5 TFL, 1 PBU, 1 PD, 1 FF)
LB Marcus Thompson, Jr. (57 TT, 6 TFL, 2 sacks)
LB Keven Woods, Sr.
LB Rico Mazique, Sr.
DB Carlos Hollis, Sr. (41 TT, 3 TFL, 1 INT, 1 PD, 1 FR)
DB Marquez Floyd, Sr. (18 TT, 1.5 TFL,2 INT, 1 PBU, 3 PD, 1 FR)
DB Jeremy Langston, Sr.
PK/P Carlos Sanchez, Sr. (38.8 yards per punt)
BIGGEST LOSS: WR Paul Cox (36 receptions, 619 yards, 3 TD)
OUTLOOK: It seems easy to quickly dismiss Mississippi Valley State. After all, the program has only one win over the last two seasons. A complete turnaround will not be likely, or easy for that matter, but there were some signs last year that showed the Delta Devils can only become better. Four of last year's 10 defeats were by less than 10 points, including a 17-16 loss against rival Jackson State and as a six-point overtime loss versus SWAC champion Grambling State. MVSU returns three experienced, but inconsistent quarterbacks who are battling it out for the starting position in fall camp, and both running backs who took the majority of snaps last fall. There is no question the offense needs to be much better in 2012 in order to build a better foundation for the future. The Delta Devils averaged only 14.7 points per game, while allowing 31.8 last year and even worse, finished third from last in the FCS with 255 yards per game on offense. The good news for Morgan and his team is that as brutal as the last two seasons have been, it can only get better from here on out.
Sept. 1 - vs. Concordia (Ala.)
Sept. 8 - at Alabama State
Sept. 13 - at Southern
Sept. 22 - at Northwestern State
Oct. 6 - vs. Alabama A&M
Oct. 13 - vs. Grambling State
Oct. 20 - at Jackson State
Oct. 27 - at Arkansas-Pine Bluff
Nov. 3 - vs. Alcorn State
Nov. 10 - vs. Prairie View A&M
Nov. 17 - at Texas Southern
1. GRAMBLING STATE TIGERS (8-4 overall, 6-3 SWAC)
COACH: Doug Williams (61-21 in seven seasons at Grambling State; 61-21 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 11 (7 offense/4 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: RB Dawrence Roberts, Jr. (199 carries, 1,102 yards, 8 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: LB Jacarde Carter, Jr. (66 TT, 6.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 1 FR)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB D.J. Williams, So. (75-of-148, 1,102 yards, 14 TD, 7 INT)
QB Frank Rivers, So. (55-of-114, 1,102 yards, 10 TD, 10 INT)
WR Anthony McGee, So.
RB Juwan Martin, So.
RT Sanford Banks, Sr.
OL Clint Marsh, Jr.
LG Ahston Green, Sr.
DL Devon Carter, So.
DL Jomarcus Savage, Sr. (46 TT, 13 TFL, 8 sacks, 1 PBU, 1 PD)
DB Edward Patterson, Sr. (47 TT, 4.5 TFL, 2 INT, 6 PBU)
DB Trey Williams, Jr. (40 TT, 4 TFL, 1 sack, 4 PBU, 2 FF)
DB David Smith, So. (36 TT, 5.5 TFL, 2 sacks)
DB Naquan Smith, Sr. (71 TT, 3.5 TFL, 3 INT, 3 PBU, 6 PD)
DB Tyree Hollins, So.
BIGGEST LOSSES: LB Cliff Exama (136 TT, 19 TFL, 3 sacks, 2 INT, 4 PBU, 6 PD) and WR Mario Louis (51 receptions, 1,129 yards, 18 TD)
OUTLOOK: Defending SWAC champion Grambling State overcame a 1-4 start last season, winning the remaining games on its schedule and eventually beating Alabama A&M in the title game after trailing by 15 points at halftime. The Tigers are expected to repeat their title, but it won't be easy replacing a defense that lost a lot of talented players. Coach Doug Williams will rely on a young and inexperienced defensive line and linebacking corps. Gone is Exama, a tackling machine and the SWAC Defensive Player of the Year, but the Tigers can depend on Carter, Patterson and Savage to step up and provide leadership. Grambling is led on offense by Roberts, the 2011 SWAC rushing leader. In only 10 games, Roberts scored eight times on the ground and averaged 110 yards per contest. Coach Williams' son D.J. looks to have the edge over fellow sophomore Rivers in 2012 at quarterback. As a freshman, Williams threw for 1,102 yards, 14 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Grambling is the clear favorite to win the Western Division, but its defense needs to only bend and not break. The Tigers play at TCU in Week 2 but have the advantage of hosting both Alabama State and Jackson State.
Sept. 1 - vs. Alcorn State (Shreveport, La.)
Sept. 8 - at TCU
Sept. 15 - vs. Alabama State
Sept. 29 - at Alabama A&M
Oct. 6 - vs. Prairie View A&M (Dallas)
Oct. 13 - at Mississippi Valley State
Oct. 20 - vs. Virginia University of Lynchburg
Oct. 27 - at Texas Southern
Nov. 3 - vs. Jackson State
Nov. 10 - vs. Arkansas-Pine Bluff
Nov. 24 - vs. Southern (New Orleans)
2. ARKANSAS-PINE BLUFF GOLDEN LIONS (6-5 overall, 5-4 SWAC)
COACH: Monte Coleman (19-25 in four seasons at Arkansas-Pine Bluff; 19-25 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 20 (10 offense/ 10 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Ben Anderson, So. (166-of-309, 1,876 yards, 10 TD, 9 INT)
DEFENSIVE STAR: LB Bill Ross, Sr. (107 TT, 11 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 3 INT, 5 PD)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: WR Dezmond Beverly, Jr. (34 receptions, 294 yards, 2 TD)
WR Mareo Howard, Sr. (15 receptions, 244 yards, 2 TD)
RB Dennis Jenkins, Jr. (88 carries, 373 yards, 2 TD)
RB Justin Billings, Jr. (43 carries, 251 yards, 1 TD)
C Chris Wilson, Sr.
LG Ryan Savage, Sr.
LT Terron Armstead, Sr.
DB Jarvis Webb, Sr. (52 TT, 2.5 TFL, 3 INT, 9 PBU, 12 PD)
DL Brandon Thurmond, Sr. (25 TT, 7 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 1 PBU)
DL Damien Lee, So. (20 TT, 5.5 TFL, 3 FF)
LB Jer-ryan Harris, Jr.
S Ryan Shaw (50 TT, 1 TFL, 3 INT, 5 PD, 2 FR, 3 FF)
P Aaron Godwin, Sr.
BIGGEST LOSS: DL Michael Johnson (37 TT, 11 TFL, 7 sacks, 1 FF)
OUTLOOK: Arkansas-Pine Bluff is coming off a six-win season in which four of its five losses came agaisnt the top three teams in the Eastern Division and the top team in the Western Division. The Gold Lions are led on offense by the 2011 SWAC freshmen of the year, Anderson. He threw for 1,876 yards and 10 touchdowns but also accounted for nine interceptions. Protecting Anderson will be Armstead, an All-SWAC tackle. The loss of All-SWAC performer Johnson will be hard to fill, but Thurmond and Lee have the experience to further develop a young defense. Ross is an underrated defender who accounted for 107 total tackles last year, while Harris was the 2010 SWAC Freshman of the Year who faced injuries last season. Webb and Shaw together had six interceptions and 17 passes deflected in 2011 and will be the best pass defenders for the Golden Lions.
Sept. 1 - vs. Langston
Sept. 8 - vs. Alabama A&M
Sept. 15 - at Alcorn State
Sept. 20 - at Alabama State
Sept. 29 - at Tennessee State
Oct. 6 - vs. Jackson State
Oct. 20 - at Southern
Oct. 27 - vs. Mississippi Valley State
Nov. 3 - at Texas Southern
Nov. 10 - at Grambling State
Nov. 17 - vs. Prairie View A&M
3. PRAIRIE VIEW A&M PANTHERS (5-6 overall, 5-4 SWAC)
COACH: Heishma Northern (5-6 in one season at Prairie View A&M; 5-6 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 16 (9 offense/7 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Jerry Lovelocke, So. (1,020 yards passing, 10 TD; 318 yards rushing, 3 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: DL Jarvis Wilson, Sr. (59 TT, 11 TFL, 7 sacks)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: RB Fred Anderson, So. (126 carries, 540 yards, 5 TD)
RB Le'Darryae Groover, Jr. (120 carries, 519 yards, 3 TD)
QB Deauntre Smiley, So.
WR Spencer Nelson, Sr. (53 receptions, 659 yards, 5 TD)
WR Greg Thurmond, So. (24 receptions, 382 yards, 4 TD)
OL Tre Glover, So.
OL Aneus Ruiz, Jr.
C Dillon Bonnet, So.
DL Adrian Middleton, So.
DT Ryan Love, Sr. (42 TT, 5.5 TFL, 1 sack)
DT Dwayne Chappell (35 TT, 3.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 2 FF)
MLB Elton Holmes, Sr. (52 TT, 3 TFL, 1 sack, 1 PBU, 1 PD)
OLB Raheem Cardwell, Jr. (66 TT, 7 TFL, 1 sack, 2 PBU)
S Brian Medlock, Sr. (59 TT, 1 INT, 4 PBU, 5 PD)
DB Adrien Grant, Jr.
P Travis Jatzlau, So. (39.2 yards per punt)
PK Chris Barrick, So.
BIGGEST LOSS: LB Adrian Hamilton (81 TT, 24.5 TFL, 22 sacks, 6 FF)
OUTLOOK: Prairie View A&M can expect to count on experience in 2012 as it returns 16 starters. The defense returns seven starters, including three on the defensive line. Replacing the SWAC's all-time sack leader, Hamilton, won't be easy, but Northern will be able to rely on Wilson to carry on the tradition of athletic defensive playmakers. The good news for the Panthers offense is the future is bright with young running backs and a quarterback who can be productive in their spread offense (the Panthers led the SWAC in rushing offense in 2011). The bad news? Everyone returns on offense except two All- America lineman. The strength of the Panthers has to be the wide receivers unit, as most of the returnees contributed significantly. Northern and his staff had a fairly impressive first year, but the 2012 schedule features only two true home games. Starting the right foundation for the future might take some time.
Sept. 1 - vs. Texas Southern (Houston)
Sept. 8 - at Lamar
Sept. 15 - at Alabama A&M
Sept. 22 - at North Dakota State
Sept. 29 - at Jackson State
Oct. 6 - vs. Grambling State (Dallas)
Oct. 20 - vs. Alcorn State
Oct. 27 - vs. Southern (Shreveport, La.)
Nov. 3 - vs. Alabama State
Nov. 10 - at Mississippi Valley State
Nov. 17 - at Arkansas-Pine Bluff
4. SOUTHERN JAGUARS (4-7 overall, 4-5 SWAC)
COACH: Lyvonia "Stump" Mitchell (6-16 in two seasons at Southern; 14-40 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (8 offense/6 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: RB Sylvester Nzekwe, Jr. (144 carries, 545 yards, 3 TD; 27 receptions, 246 yards, 1 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: DB/KR Virgil Williams, Jr. (37 TT, 12 PBU, 1 FF, 12 PD; 18 KR, 532 yards, 29.6 average)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Dray Joseph, Jr. (113-of-212, 1,544 yards, 13 TD, 9 INT)
QB J.P. Douglass, So. (95-of-189, 1,282 yards, 10 TD, 6 INT)
WR Michael Berry, Sr. (39 receptions, 508 yards, 7 TD)
WR Lee Doss, Jr. (34 receptions, 410 yards, 4 TD)
WR Charles Hawkins, Sr. (23 receptions, 406 yards, 2 TD)
OL Chris Browne, Sr.
C Aaron Hall, Jr.
OL Taylon Jones, Jr.
DT Casey Narcisse, Sr.
DT Kadeem Lewis, So.
LB Anthony Balancier, Jr. (37 TT, 2 TFL, 1 INT)
DB Levi Jackson, Sr. (68 TT, 1.5 TFL, 8 PBU, 8 PD, 1 FR)
BIGGEST LOSS: LB Jamie Payton (93 TT, 12 TFL, 2 INT, 4 PBU, 6 PD, 3 FR, 1 FF)
OUTLOOK: Mitchell might be able to deal with two-and four-win campaigns in his first two seasons a little easier, thanks to the NCAA finally lifting its postseason ban on the program. It is clear the Jaguars are trying to get back to the top of the conference behind their defense. Dawson Odums takes over as the coordinator for a defense that gave up 375.6 yards per game in 2011. The defensive line has a lot of underclassmen who have had to learn quickly along the way. Balancier is a local player along with transfer Corey Roy who should help fill the void that Payton left a year ago. Williams has developed into one of the team's best defenders, both defending and breaking up 12 passes last season, while Jackson also has shown strong athletic abilities in the secondary. The offensive line brings back four starters who will try to pave the way for their junior running back, Nzekwe, who should improve as a runner and a pass catcher. The Jaguars lost four of their seven games by 13 points, but need to have more consistency in quarterback play in order to win the close games.
Sept. 1 - at New Mexico
Sept. 13 - vs. Mississippi Valley State
Sept. 22 - at Jackson State
Sept. 29 - vs. Florida A&M (Atlanta)
Oct. 6 - at Alcorn State
Oct. 13 - vs. Texas Southern
Oct. 20 - vs. Arkansas-Pine Bluff
Oct. 27 - vs. Prairie View A&M (Shreveport, La.)
Nov. 3 - at Alabama A&M
Nov. 10 - vs. Alabama State
Nov. 24 - vs. Grambling State (New Orleans)
5. TEXAS SOUTHERN JAGUARS (4-7 overall, 2-7 SWAC)
COACH: Darrell Asberry (first season at Texas Southern, 40-25 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (7 offense/8 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Riko Smalls, Sr. (166-of-316, 2,177 yards, 12 TD, 9 INT; 215 rushing yards, 4 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: MLB William Parker, Sr. (61 TT, 10.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 3 PBU, 3 PD, 2 FR)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Dantavious Parker, Sr. (10-of-23, 154 yards, 1 TD; missed season due to injury)
RB Kendall Denson, So.
WR Donnie Davison, Sr. (20 receptions, 256 yards)
WR James Davis, Sr.
OL Ray Rodriquez, Sr.
OL Moses Alvidrez, Sr.
OL Marvin Hollie Jr., Jr.
OL Kenneth Hall, Jr.
OL Kendrick Williams, So.
DL Armir Bloom, So.
DL Ernest Gilley, Sr. (13 TT, 4.5 TFL, 1 sack, 3 PBU, 3 PD)
DE Jamal Baker, So. (24 TT, 5 TFL, 2 sacks)
LB Samuel Gordy, Sr. (28 TT, 4.5 TFL, 1 INT, 2 PBU, 3 PD)
LB Tyrell Jones, Jr. (29 TT, 5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 1 FF)
DB Tray Walker, So. (22 TT, 3 INT, 8 PBU, 11 PD, 1 FR)
DB Darveon Trahan, So. (33 TT, 1 TFL, 1 INT, 1 PD)
DB Eric Brown, Sr.
PK/P Robert Hersh, Sr. (missed 2011 due to injury)
BIGGEST LOSS: DL Marquis Jackson (50 TT, 18.5 TFL, 6 sacks, 5 PBU, 5 PD, 3 FF)
OUTLOOK: Texas Southern hopes to quickly forget a seven-loss season a year ago with a new head coach, offense and $95 million stadium. The Tigers hired Asberry from Shaw University to re-energize the program. Asberry is familiar with the SWAC, after his years playing quarterback at Jackson State. Last season, Texas Southern, which is no stranger to strong defense, won its second consecutive FCS total defense title. The defensive line will be without Jackson (transferred to Portland State), but the loss shouldn't hurt too badly because Bloom, Gilley and Baker all resume duties as starters. The Tigers secondary was very young last season. Leading the way was Walker, a freshman who had 11 passes defended with three interceptions, and Derricus Purdy returns after sitting out last season. Similarly, the Tigers missed PK/P Hursh, who also sat out last season due to injury. Parker and Smalls should compete for playing time as the lead signal-caller. Smalls filled in for the injured Parker and didn't miss a beat, passing for 2,177 yards and 12 touchdowns, while rushing for four touchdowns. The offensive line brings back every starter from 2011, but the backfield is a major question mark after it lost Martin Gilbert and Marcus Wright, who accounted for over 1,400 yards and 16 touchdowns collectively.
Sept. 1 - vs. Prairie View A&M (Houston)
Sept. 8 - at North Texas
Sept. 15 - vs. Jackson State
Sept. 22 - vs. Alabama A&M
Sept. 29 - vs. Sam Houston State
Oct. 6 - at Alabama State
Oct. 13 - at Southern
Oct. 27 - vs. Grambling State
Nov. 3 - vs. Arkansas-Pine Bluff
Nov. 10 - at Alcorn State
Nov. 17 - vs. Mississippi Valley State