By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Norfolk, VA (Sports Network) - People across the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference must be so impressed with the job that new Savannah State football coach Steve Davenport is doing that his squad received a first-place vote in their preseason poll.
Actually, it calls into question whether all the head coaches and sports information directors are taking their vote seriously. The one vote didn't prevent Savannah State from finishing 11th and last in the poll, which seemed warranted considering the Tigers were 1-10 last season for their 13th straight losing record.
But there's no denying Davenport is injecting life into his program. It usually happens with a first-year coach, as everybody tries to impress the new boss.
In the MEAC, multiply that scenario by five. This season, Savannah State and North Carolina Central have joined the conference, one of two in the FCS for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, so nearly half of the 11 programs have new and highly respected head coaches.
Davenport, 43, has arrived at Savannah State from UAB, where he was the running backs coach since 2006. Henry Frazier, 43, won the 2009 Eddie Robinson Award at Prairie View A&M and has taken over at North Carolina Central.
"I think it adds some excitement to the league, it brings some energy to the league, because everybody is up in arms and want to see what those guys are going to do," Bethune-Cookman head coach Brian Jenkins said. "Then, of course, and unfortunately, people are going to compare what they do to what we do."
Jenkins is the model situation. He stepped into the Bethune-Cookman job last season, won his first 10 games and led the Wildcats to a shared MEAC title with Florida A&M and South Carolina State, and into the FCS playoffs
Bethune-Cookman earned the most first-place votes in the preseason poll that was unveiled Friday at MEAC media day, but the Wildcats were picked second to South Carolina State, which has won at least a share of the last four titles. The teams with new head coaches were given the last five spots from 7 through 11 - which isn't surprising because they finished a combined 9-46 last season?
Teams will still play an eight-game conference schedule, so the addition of two new teams means each will not play two opponents, with the mix changing from year to year.
South Carolina State head coach Buddy Pough laughs that with the changes, "I'm still trying to figure that all out myself. We got so many new guys, so many new schools, not playing people in the league."
Each of the new head coaches is hoping to make their programs strong enough that others won't feel comfortable playing them.
North Carolina Central was picked seventh in the poll. Frazier has inherited a 3-8 squad from a year ago, including a win over North Carolina A&T.
Eagles' eyes are on the prize with the return of 13 starters, including redshirt senior quarterback Michael Johnson and his excellent wide receiver Geovonie Irvine. Linebacker Roger Stewart, who made the preseason all- conference second team, might not be fully healthy at the start of his senior season.
"Team concept, that has to be first and firemost," Frazier said. "And I have one fundamental question: 'Is this about you or is this about the team?' We've got to put the team first. If we put the team first, everything will fall into place."
Delaware State, also 3-8 last season and picked eighth in the poll, features the MEAC's preseason offensive player of the year in redshirt junior wide receiver Justin Wilson. The Hornets have another strong pass catcher in Darius Jackson, but Blount first wants to establish the running game with I-back Jaashawn Jones, who joined Wilson on the preseason first team.
His defense will be strong up front with Darrell Brown and Brandon Harvey.
The other three new head coaches inherit 1-10 teams from a year ago, with Savannah State, like North Carolina Central, playing an independent schedule while waiting the move into the MEAC.
At N.C. A&T, picked ninth in the poll, Mike Mayhew is the MEAC's top returning running back, and fellow senior Justin Ferrell is a big-time threat at cornerback and in the return game.
"When you've been as bad as we've been for the last 10 years, everything needs improvement, from recruiting to retention to our structure to infrastructure to organization to attitudes - all those things need to be addressed," Broadway said. He and Frazier both led their respective teams to championship seasons in the Southwestern Athletic Conference, the other HBCU conference in the FCS.
"If we didn't think we could make a difference, then we wouldn't have taken the job. We would have stayed at Grambling."
The only place Harrell wants to go at Howard is up. The Bison are on "The Road to Redemption," according to their team mantra.
Harrell's squad has leaders in junior linebacker Keith Pough, who led the FCS in tackles for loss last season, and senior wide receiver Willie Carter. In addition, defensive lineman Sackie Kerkulah gives the Bison a third preseason first-team selection.
"My expectation is to build a team that has been very frail mentally and try to build a winning attitude with this team," Harrell said. "That's my first goal."
Savannah State was picked 11th in the poll and returns only one player who earned MEAC preseason honors, senior cornerback Darren Hunter on the second team. But Davenport has high hopes that his players - "hungry for success," he said - will surprise people around the conference.
Redshirt senior running back Justin Babb, who has 1,571 career rushing yards, is back after being injured last season. Defensive end Reginald Givens will be just as explosive on the other side of the ball.
"They tell me things are better, but not having gone through this before, who knows?" Davenport said. "I told the kids from the first day I met them that I wouldn't judge what happened in the past and look backward. Everything is onward and upward."
The MEAC conference season will get off to a rousing start when South Carolina State visits Bethune-Cookman on Sept. 10 in Daytona Beach, Fla. The preseason favorite Bulldogs have one fewer preseason all-conference picks with eight. Bethune-Cookman's nine includes MEAC Preseason Defensive Player of the Year Ryan Lewis at linebacker.
"There are probably more unknowns for us this year than ever before," said Pough, whose 9-3 team graduated an influential senior class.after its third straight playoff appearance.
A MEAC team has not won in the playoffs since 1999. Last season, it had two teams in the playoffs for the first time since 2003.
MEAC FOOTBALL PRESEASON POLL (Head Coaches and Sports Information Directors)
1. South Carolina State (6 first-place votes), 468
2. Bethune-Cookman (8), 454
3. Florida A&M (5), 420
4. Hampton (1), 321
5. Norfolk State (1), 274
6. Morgan State, 250
7. North Carolina Central, 162
8. Delaware State, 158
9. North Carolina A&T, 128
10. Howard, 96
11. Savannah State (1), 63
PRESEASON MEAC ALL-CONFERENCE TEAM
Offensive Player of the Year - Justin Wilson, WR, Delaware State
Defensive Player of the Year - Ryan Lewis, LB, Bethune-Cookman
QB - Chris Walley, Norfolk State, Sr.
RB - Mike Mayhew, North Carolina A&T, Sr.
RB - Antwon Chisholm, Hampton, So.
RB - Jaashawn Jones, Delaware State, Sr.
TE - Antuanne Kerr, South Carolina State, Sr.
WR - Willie Carter, Howard, Sr.
WR - Justin Wilson, Delaware State, Jr.
OL - Alex Monroe, Bethune-Cookman, So.
OL - Juavahr Nathan, South Carolina State, Sr.
OL - Kendall Noble, Norfolk State, Sr.
OL - Lawrence Brewer, Morgan State, Sr.
OL - Robert Hartley, Florida A&M, Jr.
C - Natiel Curry, Bethune-Cookman, Sr.
DL - Ryan Davis, Bethune-Cookman, Jr.
DL - Sackie Kerkular, Howard, Sr.
DL - Josh Turner, Norfolk State, Sr.
DL - Pat Washington, South Carolina State, Sr.
LB - Ryan Lewis, Bethune-Cookman, Jr.
LB - Keith Pough, Howard, Jr.
LB - Reginald Sandilands, Bethune-Cookman, Sr.
DB - Michael Williams, Bethune-Cookman, Sr.
DB - Micah Pellerin, Hampton, Sr.
DB - D'Vonte Graham, North Carolina A&T, Jr.
DB - Dominique Ellis, South Carolina State, Sr.
PK - Blake Erickson, South Carolina State, Sr.
P - Brandon Holdren, Florida A&M, Jr.
RS - Justin Ferrell, North Carolina A&T, Sr.
QB - David Legree, Hampton, Sr.
RB - Isidore Jackson, Bethune-Cookman, So.
RB - Asheton Jordan, South Carolina State, Sr.
TE - Ryan Langdon, Delaware State, Jr.
WR - Javaris Brown, Hampton, Jr.
WR - Eddie Poole, Bethune-Cookman, So.
OL - Brandon Curry, Florida A&M, Sr.
OL - David Luckett, Hampton, Jr.
OL - Brenton Walker, North Carolina A&T, Sr.
OL - Marquell Rozier, Bethune-Cookman, So.
C - Shelley Anthony, Florida A&M, Jr.
DL - Ronnell Ferguson, South Carolina State, Sr.
DL - Zary Stewart, Morgan State, Sr.
DL - Roger Stewart, North Carolina Central, Sr.
DL - Jerry Willis, Florida A&M, Sr.
LB - Corwin Hammond, Norfolk State, Sr.
LB - Donovan Richard, South Carolina State, Sr.
LB - Allen Stephens, Morgan State, Jr.
DB - Justin Ferrell, North Carolina A&T, Sr.
DB - Darren Hunter, Savannah State, Sr.
DB - Reshaude Miller, Morgan State, Sr.
DB - John Ojo, Florida A&M, Jr.
PK - Trevor Scott, Florida A&M, Sr.
P - Nicholas Adams, Morgan State, Jr.
RS - Arthur Goforth, North Carolina Central, Jr.