Bethune-Cookman cruised to a win in the 2011 MEAC/SWAC Challenge under coach Brian Jenkins.
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
It's that time of the year again. Summer has passed quicker than we remember, it's time to start paying more attention to your job and it's time to send the kids back to school. More importantly, the road to Frisco begins this week for FCS teams.
For the fans, some fleeting hours remain to re-live their favorite moments from last season, before the new season officially kicks off. It's an opportunity to remember all the glory, triumph, happiness, and, yes, even the brutal losses, disappointment and failed expectations your team didn't live up to.
It's the last chance to trash-talk with sworn enemies before the teams do the talking for everyone. It's both exciting and nerve-racking to play out dozens of scenarios in the new season.
It's the smell of a cornucopia of meats being grilled in tailgate sections all across the country. It's the sound of your team's fight song being played on game day as they take the field. And, it's the feelings that you yearn for every fall that make FCS action so special.
In Week 1, 82 games take place between all FCS conferences except the Ivy League versus all sorts of competition ranging from FBS, Division II, Division III and NAIA opponents. However, one of the most intriguing matchups, which happens to be the last game of the weekend, takes place on Sunday in the Florida Citrus Bowl.
Alabama State and Bethune-Cookman will meet in the eighth edition of the MEAC/SWAC Challenge, a series which is currently sitting at 5-2 in favor of the MEAC. This game features some of the HBCU's best programs and traditions, with the Wildcats and the Hornets squaring off for their 14th overall meeting.
Last season, Bethune-Cookman had no problems in the annual Challenge, defeating Prairie View A&M, 63-14. The Wildcats finished 8-3 and were the only MEAC team to beat eventual conference champion Norfolk State. However, a surprising loss in Week 5 against North Carolina A&T prevented B-C from claiming the title and receiving the conference's automatic bid to the FCS playoffs.
This year, Bethune has plans of its own. Coach Brian Jenkins developed a "brick-by-brick" foundation mentality for his team when he arrived in 2010. It work with a conference title and playoff bid in 2010, but the Wildcats are well aware of the challenge they face to open the season.
"For me it doesn't matter, you've got to play the games," Jenkins said. "It don't matter if they come early, in the middle, or late, you've got to play, so however they come, we're willing to line up. Whenever you get an opportunity to go to venue like that and play for the second time in a row, it's great. It's definitely exciting to be able to line up against a team like Alabama State, who is a tremendous team of championship caliber."
Bethune has the returning talent and the roster to make a conference title run. Although the Wildcats are the preseason favorites, the MEAC should have a wide-open conference race this year. First and foremost, B-C is focused on being more consistent on a week-by-week basis.
"We don't need 2010 to motivate us, our main goal is to win at all costs and that's motivation enough," Jenkins said. "If we have to look back to years that have passed to motivate us, then we're in trouble. We want to be more consistent on and off the field."
Alabama State, like the Wildcats, had high expectations in 2011, but failed to capitalize after a 6-1 start to the season. For the second straight year, the Hornets lost crucial games which cost them the Eastern Division title and a spot in the SWAC championship game.
Coach Reggie Barlow believes this game will have a lot more meaning to the program than just getting off to a good start.
"There's a lot of notoriety that comes with this game," Barlow said, "and there's an opportunity for people top see us all over the country ... we're not just playing for ASU, that's our approach for this game. This is about Walter Payton and Jerry Rice and all those great Grambling players, Doug Williams, all these guys that represented the SWAC. That's what we're going to do, be a representation of the SWAC conference, and it's a blessing to be a part of it."
The Hornets bring back a dangerous offense led by dual-threat quarterback Greg Jenkins, running back Quendarius McKibben and All-America left tackle Terren Jones. Making things even more interesting was the late addition of Georgia transfer and 2011 SEC Freshman of the Year Isiah Crowell in the backfield.
"Isiah is, of course, a top-notch guy, I mean he's the SEC Freshman of the Year," Barlow said. "He fits the pyramid, he's got the size and explosiveness. He's been working hard in camp and we want our running game to be better than it was last year, and he definitely gives us an opportunity to be able to run it more."
One of the biggest concerns for Alabama State will be trying to figure out offensive tendencies for an opponent they haven't played in three years. Bethune-Cookman's offense ranked No. 1 in the MEAC in yards per game (435) and scoring offense (33.9 ppg) in 2011. This offseason, Jenkins hired former Dartmouth and Duke offensive coordinator Jim Pry to lead the offense.
"The other thing is the unknown," Barlow said. "You know we haven't played Bethune since this new coach has been there and, of course, they got a new coordinator. So even the film we might have gotten from last year ... it's kind of hard to know exactly what you will get, so there's going to be a lot of adjusting on the fly after the first quarter."
Both teams know how important the game is for their season, but they also recognize what it means for the continuing tradition of HBCU football.
"It sets the stage for both conferences and the competitive nature," Jenkins said. "It shows what's going on in both conferences in terms of the type of talent and it's perfect."
The following is a game-by-game breakdown for The Sports Network/Fathead.com FCS Top 25 and other select games (all times ET):
Thursday, Sept. 1
No. 7 Towson Tigers (0-0) at Kent State Golden Flash (0-0), 7 p.m. (ESPN3.com)
Series Record: First meeting
Last Meeting: None
What To Know: Last season, Towson went from last place to first in CAA Football, winning the conference title and clinching a playoff spot. Terrence West turned into a surprise stud running back and led the FCS with 29 rushing touchdowns. This marks the fourth time in the last five years Towson has opened the season facing an FBS team on the road, and all have resulted in a loss.
The program has quickly turned around under Ambrose's guidance. But coming away with a win versus a good Golden Flash team might be too much to ask for. Kent State brings back 17 starters on both sides of the ball, including quarterback Spencer Keith, who threw eight touchdowns with no interceptions in the team's final five games, winning four of them to finish 5-7. The Golden Flashes defense ranked No. 1 in the MAC in allowing 319 yards per game.
Prediction: Kent State 35, Towson 17
West Chester Golden Rams (0-0) at No. 15 Delaware Blue Hens (0-0), 7:30 p.m.
Series Record: Delaware leads, 46-6-1
Last Meeting: Delaware 28, West Chester 17 (Sept. 10, 2011)
What To Know: Delaware missed the NCAA playoffs last season despite winning seven games (only six were against FCS opponents). The annual contest versus the Golden Rams has turned into an easy walk-through for the Blue Hens (including 18 straight wins), although last year's result was the closest it has been in recent years. The series will come to an end after Thursday's contest.
UD's Andrew Pierce has turned into one of the FCS' top rushers and should have a strong start to the season with three manageable non-conference games. Similarly, the offensive line, which only brings back one starter, should be able to find its identity against a West Chester unit which allowed 26 points per game in 2011.
Keeler will have his team fired up for a game they can't afford to lose.
Last Meeting: Southern Illinois 45, Eastern Illinois 28
What To Know: Both teams are coming off disappointing seasons and are looking to find the success they each had just a few years back. Eastern Illinois enters a completely new era of football without Bob Spoo, replacing him is former assistant, Dino Babers. Southern Illinois has had back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 2001-02.
The Panthers will be hungry to start 2012 after losing the season finale to the Salukis last season. EIU lost six games by nine points or less, including two one-point losses, and returns 17 starters.
Likewise, Southern Illinois lost many close games versus some of the Missouri Valley Football Conference's best competition, losing to North Dakota State by six points, Northern Iowa by seven and Illinois State by eight. Besides the large implications for both teams, this game also means a lot for bragging rights.
No. 14 New Hampshire Wildcats (0-0) at Holy Cross Crusaders (0-0), 7:30 p.m.
Series Record: Tied, 6-6
Last Meeting: New Hampshire, 39, Holy Cross 32 (Oct. 1, 2011)
What To Know: The visiting Wildcats own the longest current streak of FCS playoff appearances with eight. With a new starting quarterback in redshirt freshman Sean Goldrich, and redshirt sophomore Andy Vailas backing him up, the Wildcats are likely just looking for efficient play on opening night and letting the offensive line establish itself, and running back Nico Steriti and wideouts Joey Orlando and R.J. Harris be the playmakers. The Matt Evans-led defense got quicker in the five-man secondary with senior captain Dontra Peters moving to cornerback from running back.
This is Holy Cross' second home night game, having lost to Massachusetts, 24-16, to open last season at Fithen Field. UNH struggled to stop Holy Cross' passing game last season, but the Crusaders also have a new signal-caller, Kevin Watson. As a fifth-year senior, he should have a comfort level with three wide receivers (Gerald Mistretta, Mike Fess and Kyle Toulouse) who combined on 145 receptions and 11 touchdowns last season. The Crusaders are strong in special teams, especially with place-kicker John Macomber.
Prediction: New Hampshire 24, Holy Cross 13
Hampton Pirates (0-0) at Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles (0-0), 8 p.m.
Series Record: First meeting
Last Meeting: None
What To Know: Tennessee Tech earned a share of its first conference title since 1975 and the Ohio Valley Conference's automatic bid to the FCS playoffs last year. Once again, the Golden Eagles will have an under-dog mentality entering 2012 after losing a key group on seniors. They lost wide receiver Tim Benford, the OVC's offensive player of the year, and running back Dontey Gay.
Hampton looks to build on offense after a 7-4 campaign while trying to figure out who will become the next lead signal-caller. This offseason, coach Donovan Rose grabbed new offensive coordinator Earnest J. Wilson from Jackson State to take over an offense that gained 366 yards per game. JSU led the SWAC in four primary offensive categories, so expect Wilson to help make the Pirates even better.
This game is a unique matchup between two teams who surprised everyone but their selves last year. Both teams will find out early how good or bad their offense will be.
Prediction: Hampton 24, Tennessee Tech 23
Southern Utah Thunderbirds (0-0) at Utah State Aggies (0-0), 8 p.m.
Series Record: Utah State leads, 2-0
Last Meeting: Utah State 53, Southern Utah 34 (Sept. 26, 2009)
What To Know: Southern Utah is coming off its second straight 6-5 campaign, but enters this season as a new member of the Big Sky Conference. The Thunderbirds are led by quarterback Brad Sorensen. The 6-foot-5, 225-pound senior has turned into one of the FCS' top NFL prospects and threw for 3,143 yards, and 17 touchdowns last year.
Utah State returns 19 starters from a team that finished with a 7-6 record and tied for second place in the Western Athletic Conference with a 5-2 mark before participating in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl (losing 24-23 vs. Ohio), its first bowl game since 1997.
The Thunderbirds have other weapons besides their stud QB, with senior offensive guard Zach Brackus and senior defensive tackle Cody Larsen, but the biggest concern for Southern Utah will be running ball. Last year, SUU averaged only 93 yards per game rushing, while the Aggies ran for 282 yards per game. Without a balanced attack, Southern Utah could be trouble. Not to mention, in Week 2 the Thunderbirds play another FBS foe in California.
Last Meeting: Eastern Washington 8, Idaho 5 (Sept. 6, 2003)
What To Know: Eastern Washington has one of the best shots of knocking off an FBS opponent in Week 1. Last year, Idaho won two games, one of those came against Big Sky newcomer North Dakota, the other versus San Jose State. The Eagles are one of the most intriguing teams in the FCS this season after an uncharacteristic 6-5 record and slow start in 2011.
Idaho gave up 33 points per game and 436 yards per game, while opponents passed for 278 yards per contest last season. EWU's wide receiving trio of Nicholas Edwards, Brandon Kaufman and Greg Herd have combined for 404 catches for 5,451 yards with 56 touchdowns in their careers and could have a huge night in the Kibbie Dome.
The Eagles added former SMU quarterback Kyle Padron to their dangerous offense and closed the 2011 season by winning six of their last seven games. Padron's first start for a hungry Eastern Washington team could be special.
Prediction: Eastern Washington 28, Idaho 20
Chadron State Eagles (0-0) at No. 4 Montana State Bobcats (0-0), 9:05 p.m.
Series Record: Montana State leads, 2-1
Last Meeting: Chadron State 35, Montana State 24 (Sept. 9, 2006)
What To Know: In the first night game in the history of Bobcat Stadium, Montana State takes on a Chadron State team that upset the Bobcats, 35-24, in the 2006 home opener. In that game, Danny Woodhead, currently a member of the New England Patriots, rushed for 215 yards and two touchdowns.
This season, however, Rob Ash will have his team focused and ready to go with all the preseason hype and expectations in Bozeman. MSU brings back a wealth of talent and experience on both sides of the ball and only needs to find stability on the offensive line.
Prediction: Montana State 51, Chadron State 7
Friday, Aug. 31
Southwestern Oklahoma Bulldogs (0-0) at No. 20 Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks, (0-0), 7 p.m.
Series Record: First meeting
Last Meeting: None
What To Know: Hurricane Isaac has pushed this game back from Thursday.
Stephen F. Austin looks to bounce back after missing the playoffs for the first time in two years, thanks to a 1-5 start in its first six games. Brady Attaway played decent at quarterback, but he must cut down on turnovers after leading the FCS with 22 interceptions. The offense should have no problems scoring against a Southwestern Oklahoma defense that was spotty last year.
The Lumberjacks defense finished No. 1 in the FCS in sacks and tackles for loss last season. Willie Jefferson, Jordan Aubrey and Josh Aubrey and many other developing defenders should shut down the Bulldogs' game plan.
Stephen F. Austin has some of the most depth and talent at the receiver position in the conference and should get the air attack rolling in Week 1.
Prediction: Stephen F. Austin 48, Southwestern Oklahoma 10
Saturday, Sept. 1
No. 6 Appalachian State Mountaineers (0-0) at East Carolina Pirates (0-0), noon (Fox Sports Net)
Series Record: Appalachian State leads, 19-11
Last Meeting: East Carolina 29, Appalachian State 24 (Sept. 5, 2009)
What To Know: Appalachian State opens the season versus an FBS opponent for the 16th time in 21 years and will be traveling on the road for the 11th straight year. Jerry Moore and his squad will be hoping fate is on their side because the opener falls on the fifth anniversary of the Mountaineers' historic victory at No. 5 Michigan on Sept. 1, 2007.
Despite reaching the FCS playoffs last year and winning eight games, Appalachian failed to meet the high standards that the program has developed. This game is important for an offense that looks to regain its identity with quarterback Jamal Jackson and offensive coordinator Scott Satterfield, who returns to the program.
East Carolina will not take Appalachian State lightly, especially when you consider coach Ruffin McNeill was part of Moore's original staff in the early 1990s. The Pirates are coming off a 5-7 season and return 14 starters and should have enough talent to come away with a victory. The Mountaineers haven't won in Greenville since 1959.
Prediction: East Carolina 31, Appalachian State 14
Last Meeting: Lehigh 49, Monmouth 24 (Sept. 3, 2011)
What To Know: Everyone knows how good Lehigh has been the last two seasons. The Mountain Hawks captured back-to-back Patriot League titles and have won 12 consecutive league games entering 2012. But before you write off Monmouth's chances, consider the fact the Mountain Hawks are 1-5 in Andy Coen's tenure in the first game of the year at Goodman Stadium.
Lehigh must replace quarterback Chris Lum with senior Mike Colvin, who will try to prove the Mountain Hawks can still have an explosive offense. Wide receiver Ryan Spadola hopes to be at his All-America level after missing some time in the preseason because of a groin injury. Fellow classmates free safety Billy O'Brien and nose tackle Sajjad Changani will lead by example, but it will be difficult to replicate the type of success the team has had in recent seasons.
On the other hand, Monmouth brings back 19 starters from a team that won five games on the road and lost six games at home. Lehigh will have its hands full, but eventually its experience will overcome any type of "trap game" that's expected.
Prediction: Lehigh 24, Monmouth 21
Dayton Flyers (0-0) at No. 19 Illinois State Redbirds (0-0), 2 p.m.
Series Record: First meeting
Last Meeting: None
What To Know: The last time Illinois State faced a member of the Pioneer Football League to open the season, it fell to Drake, 27-24, in 2007. This season, eight starters return on both sides of the ball for coach Brock Spack's team, which recorded seven wins last year. The Redbirds narrowly missed the final FCS at-large playoff spot due to a 23-20 overtime loss versus Northern Iowa to end the season.
Illinois State rebuilt its defense in 2011, ranking No. 1 in the MVFC in total defense (294.8 ypg) and finished first in the MVFC and fifth nationally against the run (85.7 ypg). Dayton provides a unique challenge for the Redbirds with the PFL's top rushing quarterback in Will Bardo and the league's second-leading rusher in running back Taylor Harris. This game will be close early on, but don't expect Illinois State to allow for another PFL upset.
Prediction: Illinois State 28, Dayton 13
South Dakota Coyotes (0-0) at No. 11 Montana Grizzlies (0-0), 3:30 p.m.
Series Record: Montana leads, 9-6
Last Meeting: at Montana 45, South Dakota 13 (September 1999)
What To Know: In a bizarre and wild offseason - that included the firing of head coach Robin Pflugrad, player arrests and sexual assault allegations - Montana is the talk of the Big Sky, but not for the right reasons.
The Griz return seven starters (only two on defense) and look to fill some major holes for the first time in many years. New coach Mick Delaney was given a two-year contract to clean up the issues and they need to find a new signal- caller because projected starter Jordan Johnson faces a felony charge of sexual assault and remains off the team (redshirt freshman Trent McKinney is the new starter). There's no question Montana has the talent, but the Griz don't have the experience they have been accustomed to in their history.
Ironically, South Dakota coach Joe Glenn recorded a 39-6 record as the head coach at Montana from 2000-02, but he takes over a team that only won three FCS games in 2011. Even with the uncertainty facing the Griz, Montana has a record of 171-21 at Washington-Grizzly Stadium since it opened in 1986. This game should add one more win to the total.
Prediction: Montana 28, South Dakota 12
No. 18 Eastern Kentucky Colonels (0-0) at Purdue Boilermakers (0-0), 3:30 p.m. (Big Ten Network)
Series Record: First meeting
Last Meeting: None
What To Know: Eastern Kentucky has lost 11 straight season openers, including last year's 10-7 loss at Kansas State, in which the Colonels led 7-3 with less than two minutes left in the fourth quarter. EKU won a share of the OVC title and made its 20th appearance in the FCS playoffs, losing to James Madison, 20-17, in the first round.
Purdue opens its 125th season of football against coach Danny Hope's alma mater and the school in which he led as head coach for five seasons. The Boilermakers made a bowl game for the first time since 2007 and had big wins over Illinois and Ohio State last year.
Senior running back Matt Denham rushed for 1,570 yards and nine touchdowns as a junior in 2011. He should come close to his 130 yards per game average, but Purdue won't mess around for this one.
What To Know: Northern Iowa has competed well against FBS programs in recent years. Coach Mark Farley is 2-10 versus FBS foes with wins against Ball State in 2001 and Iowa State in 2007. The Panthers also have lost twice by one point, in 2009 versus Iowa and last year against Iowa State.
However, this year, UNI will be lucky get out of Madison alive after the Badgers outscored their opponents during the 2011 season, 618-266, averaging 44.1 points per game.
Keep in mind, the Panthers play Central State in Week 2, but go on the road at Iowa and Youngstown State in weeks 3 and 4, then host reigning national champion North Dakota State on Sept. 29. Staying healthy early on will be a key for Northern Iowa.
Prediction: Wisconsin 55, Northern Iowa 10
Furman Paladins (0-0) at Samford Bulldogs (0-0), 4:30 p.m. (Charter/CSN Sport Southeast)
Series Record: Furman leads, 8-6
Last Meeting: Samford 26, Furman 21 (Oct. 8. 2011)
What To Know: Last year, Samford snapped a seven-game series losing streak to capture its first victory over Furman since 1969. The Bulldogs finished in the middle of the conference with a record of 4-4. Running back Fabian Truss and fellow junior wide receiver Kelsey Pope played exceptionally as sophomores last year.
First and foremost, both teams will have to replace experienced quarterbacks that had a large part in their success. Samford lost Dustin Taliaferro (2,301 yards, 14 TD) while Furman lost Chris Forcier (2,265 yards, 23 TD). Both losses hurt equally because each team is trying to progress with a steady signal- caller.
The Paladins have only kicked off the season versus a Southern Conference foe once since 1975. In coach Bruce Fowler's first season, Furman won games against Wofford, Appalachian State and Chattanooga, but lost critical home games versus Samford and Elon. The Bulldogs added Memphis transfer Andy Summerlin, who was 45-of-94 for 469 yards in five games for the Tigers, including two starts.
It's a high-risk, high-reward scenario in Week 1 and that's what SoCon football is all about.
What To Know: The Eagles have made back-to-back FCS playoff semifinal appearances and look to be one of the most solid teams entering 2012. Jeff Monken and offensive coordinator Brent Davis have made Georgia Southern's run attack look like national champion-caliber teams of the past, with speed, athleticism and depth.
B-Back Dominique Swope had immediate impact as a true freshman, rushing for 1,023 yards and seven touchdowns. Joining him will be Robert Brown, Darreion Robinson and Jonathan Bryant, who accounted for 209 carries and eight touchdowns collectively. Monken will utilize a two-QB system with sophomore Ezayi Youyoute and junior Jerick McKinnon, both had experience behind two-year starter Jaybo Shaw. By the way, the Eagles defense is led by All-America NFL prospect Brent Russell, a nose tackle, and is often easily overlooked.
Jacksonville, which represents the PFL, lost road contests versus The Citadel and Western Illinois to open the 2011 season. In 2010, the Dolphins beat Old Dominion, but lost to Appalachian State, once again in weeks 1 and 2 of the season. On the plus side, Jacksonville and its Pioneer counterparts will be eligible for the FCS playoffs in 2013. Facing tougher competition will only help for the years to come, but not this year.
Last Meeting: Wofford 52, Gardner-Webb 17 (Oct. 13, 2007)
What To Know: Last season, the Terriers gave up 311 yards per game, good for 17th in the FCS. Few recognize important players like linebackers Alvin Scioneaux and Mike Niam and free safety James Zotto. The trio headlines a defense that was very strong in 2011 and brings back a key group of upperclassmen.
On offense, the Terriers' triple option assault will have no trouble finding holes for the FCS' active career leader in rushing and rushing touchdowns, fullback Eric Breitenstein. The senior has accounted for 622 carries for 3,695 yards and 46 touchdowns in his illustrious career.
Gardner-Webb begins the first of a four-game, home-and-home series over the next four seasons versus the run-oriented Terriers. The bad news is the Runnin' Bulldogs last won in the series 25 seasons ago, in 1987. They only have one winning season in the last five years, but hope for change with Ron Dickerson, Jr., who enters his second season at GWU.
Prediction: Wofford 48, Gardner-Webb 17
St. Francis (Pa.) Red Flash (0-0) at No. 5 James Madison Dukes (0-0), 6 p.m.
Series Record: First meeting
Last Meeting: None
What To Know: If timing is everything, St. Francis must need a new watch. The Red Flash keep scheduling tough out-of-conference games and it's not getting them anywhere. The season opener at James Madison will prove to be one of the more tougher tests.
JMU got things rolling last year after a slow start and laid the foundation for what should be a good year in 2012. The Dukes averaged 25,000-plus fans per game in its new stadium, all of whom are expecting big things from Mickey Matthews' squad which returns tailback Dae'Quan Scott, a trouble-free quarterback Justin Thorpe and a monster of a linebacker in Stephon Robertson.
St. Francis ranked as the third-worst defense in the FCS, giving up 489 yards of total offense per game last year, things could get out of hand early in Harrisonburg.
Prediction: James Madison 56, St. Francis 14
Duquesne Dukes (0-0) at No. 8 Old Dominion Monarchs (0-0), 6 p.m.
Series Record: First meeting
Last Meeting: None
What To Know: Old Dominion enters its final season of CAA Football action before rising to the FBS and Conference USA. In their first season in the CAA, the Monarchs tied for second place and made their first trip to the FCS playoffs. Their fourth-year program won't be eligible for a CAA title, (due the transition to the FBS level) but Wilder's team has its sights set on receiving an at-large playoff berth, and they have the playmakers to realistically make that happen.
On the other hand, Duquesne has plans of its own after posting a 9-2 record and gaining a share of the Northeast Conference title. The Dukes have a group of seniors who have gone 11-2 in their last 13 NEC games. Duquesne's defense ranked No. 1 in the FCS in pass defense, allowing 139 yards per game, led by All-America free safety Serge Kona. Schmitt can count on proven seniors, quarterback Sean Patterson and running back Larry McCoy.
Old Dominion QB Tyler Heinecke had a break-out year, throwing 25 touchdowns and one interception. The Monarchs want to go out with a bang in their last FCS season. In order to do that, they can't afford to have many blemishes.
Prediction: Old Dominion 35, Duquesne 21
No. 13 Youngstown State Penguins (0-0) at Pittsburgh Panthers (0-0), 6 p.m. (ESPN3.com)
Series Record: Pittsburgh leads, 2-0
Last Meeting: Pittsburgh 38, Youngstown State 3 (Sept. 5, 2009)
What To Know: Youngstown State enters the season with high expectations thanks to an offense that returns all 11 starters. Offensively, the Penguins had one of the best seasons in school history, averaging 36 points per game and 458 yards per contest. Eric Wolford's squad was the only team to defeat national champion North Dakota State, but a brutal season-ending loss to struggling Missouri State kept the Penguins out of the FCS playoffs.
Pittsburgh's Paul Chryst makes his head coaching debut for the Panthers following an impressive tenure as offensive coordinator at Big Ten power Wisconsin. Youngstown State is 0-9 against FBS schools since 2001, but last year the Penguins lost at Michigan State, 28-6, in a game that was a lot closer than the score indicated. The Panthers defeated Maine, 35-29, in 2011 and although the offensive weapons of YSU can be very dangerous, Pitt chose Chryst specifically to lead it back to glory.
Quarterback Kurt Hess (2,460 yards, 26 TD) and running back Jamaine Cook (1,386 yards, 13 TD) should give MVFC teams a lot of trouble once again, but they won't catch Pitt sleeping to open the season.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 33, Youngstown State 24
Central Connecticut State Blue Devils (0-0) at No. 17 Stony Brook Seawolves (0-0), 6 p.m.
Series Record: Stony Brook leads, 7-3
Last Meeting: Stony Brook 34, Central Connecticut State 7 (Nov. 10, 2007)
What To Know: Stony Brook dropped its first three games of 2011 only to bounce back by winning nine games in a row before losing to Sam Houston State, 34-27, in the second round of the FCS playoffs. It was a truly historic year for coach Chuck Priore and a program that looks to move forward as it joins the CAA in 2013.
The Seawolves offense averaged 48 points per game in Big South Conference play and, even more amazing, they could become better this season. Quarterback Kyle Essington and fellow senior running back Miguel Maysonet had breakout years, combining for 35 touchdowns, 20 through the air and 15 on the ground. Add in the mix Marcus Coker, a transfer who rushed for 1,384 yards and 15 touchdowns at Iowa last season, and Stony Brook could run the table again in the Big South.
Central Connecticut State is coming off a disappointing 4-7 campaign, not to mention, the team has only two returning quarterbacks with experience, which combined to record 11 passes last season.
Prediction: Stony Brook 49, Central Connecticut State 6
Grambling State Tigers (0-0) vs. Alcorn State Braves (0-0), at Independence Stadium in Shreveport, La., 7 p.m.
Series Record: Grambling State leads, 40-18-3
Last Meeting: Grambling State 21, at Alcorn State 14 (Sept. 3, 2011)
What To Know: This year's version of the Port City Classic in Shreveport, La., features two historic SWAC programs, who are headed in different directions.
Alcorn State starts a new era with head coach Jay Hopson, the conference's first white head coach. The Braves face a very difficult test in Week 1 as they try to move forward under the new direction. 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.
Grambling didn't miss a beat after re-hiring Doug Williams, who left the program in 2003. The Tigers regained their spot at the top of the conference by winning seven straight games and defeating Alabama A&M in the SWAC title game.
They are led by running back Dawrence Roberts (1,102 yards, 8 TD) and a pair of standouts on defense in Devon Carter and Jarcade Carter, all of whom should pick up right where they left off last season.
Prediction: Grambling State 28, Alcorn State 10
No. 22 Jacksonville State Gamecocks (0-0) at Arkansas Razorbacks (0-0), 7 p.m.
Series Record: First meeting
Last Meeting: None
What To Know: Jacksonville State proudly wore Cinderella's shoe in the 2010 season opener by beating SEC foe Ole Miss, 49-48, in two overtimes. That team went on to lose only two conference games and earned a bid to the FCS playoffs before losing to Wofford, 17-14. Last year's team failed to live up to its preseason hype and went 7-4, narrowly missing the field of 20.
This season, don't expect any FBS upset magic because the Gamecocks face the No. 10-ranked, SEC West member Arkansas Razorbacks. Jacksonville State's only chance of victory is coming away with a healthy roster before it faces a brutal schedule further down the road.
Gamecocks coach Jack Crowe was the Arkansas head coach from 1989-92.
Prediction: Arkansas 56, Jacksonville State 10
Robert Morris Colonials (0-0) at No. 2 North Dakota State Bison (0-0), 7 p.m. (ESPN3.com)
Series Record: North Dakota State leads, 1-0
Last Meeting: North Dakota State 43, Robert Morris 17
What To Know: North Dakota State looks to defend its 2011 national championship campaign by facing a familiar foe in Robert Morris. The Bison beat the Colonials in the opening round of the 2010 FCS playoffs. Since that game, Robert Morris has won only twice, while North Dakota has gone 15-2.
The Bison lost a lot of talent, but return a wealth of depth on both sides of the ball. Running back Sam Ojuri and quarterback Brock Jensen should have no problems finding the end zone.
The Colonials offense ranked No. 93 in FCS in rushing (108 yards per game) and scored only 10 touchdowns on the ground last year, so NDSU should roll into its Week 2 matchup versus Colorado State.
Prediction: North Dakota State 42, Robert Morris 7
No. 24 Central Arkansas Bears (0-0) at Ole Miss Rebels (0-0), 7 p.m.
Series Record: First meeting
Last Meeting: None
What To Know: Central Arkansas unveiled the next best option to Boise State's blue "Smurf Turf" with its purple and gray turf last season. While it might not have been appealing to many football fans, it seemed to work well for the Bears. UCA is coming off a season that ended with the school's first appearance in the NCAA Division I playoffs in only its second year of eligibility after transitioning from Division II.
Central Arkansas certainly has strengthened its resume proving it belongs at the FCS level, but the team must replace All-America quarterback Nathan Dick, along with all-conference offensive lineman Logan Roubique and defensive end Jermayne Lett.
Ole Miss is searching to get back to its SEC success with the hiring of coach Hugh Freeze. The Rebels are 3-0 all-time against current members of the Southland Conference and should extend that record to 4-0 after a closer-than- expected win.
Prediction: Ole Miss 24, Central Arkansas 14
No. 23 Indiana State Sycamores (0-0) at Indiana Hoosiers (0-0), 8 p.m. (Big Ten Network)
Series Record: Indiana leads, 3-0
Last Meeting: Indiana 55, Indiana State 7
What To Know: Indiana State junior running back Shakir Bell tied for second in the 2011 Walter Payton Award voting. Bell had a standout sophomore season in which he led the FCS with 1,670 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns. The Sycamores will rely heavily on their stud back, who averaged 151 yards per game on the ground, versus Big Ten member and state rival Indiana.
The Hoosiers return 16 starters from last season's 1-11 squad. The team's only victory came against FCS foe South Carolina State, 38-21. IU played 32 freshmen (16 true) in 2011, the highest total in the country. The Hoosiers only have eight seniors on the 2012 roster, tied for the fewest in the nation. In coach Kevin Wilson's first season, Indiana allowed 458 yards per game, 243 of them on the ground.
Indiana State has a legitimate chance of coming away with a victory at Memorial Stadium if Bell can find his groove and the defense can bend and not break. The Sycamores have playmakers in defensive end Ben Obaseki, a Buck Buchanan Award finalist, and linebackers Aaron Archie and Jacoby Washington.
Prediction: Indiana 31, Indiana State 30 (OT)
Sunday, Sept. 2
Bethune-Cookman Wildcats (0-0) vs. Alabama State Hornets (0-0), at the Florida Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Fla. noon (ESPN)
Series Record: Bethune-Cookman leads, 10-3
Last Meeting: Bethune-Cookman 28, Alabama State 7 (Sept. 6, 2008)
What To Know: Bethuene-Cookman plays in its second straight MEAC/SWAC Challenge after defeating Prairie View A&M, 63-14, last year. In the eighth edition of the HBCU season opener, a series which is currently sitting at 5-2 in favor of the MEAC, the Wildcats face a formidable opponent in Alabama State.
Despite winning eight games in 2011, including six wins in a row to end the season, Bethune-Cookman missed the FCS playoffs. The Wildcats offense will look to establish the run game early with running backs Isidore Jackson and Anthony Jordan and quarterback Jackie Wilson, who accounted for 17 of the Wildcats' 35 rushing touchdowns last season.
Alabama State enters the game looking to prove it can be a championship-caliber team. 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 SWAC's Eastern Division title for the second straight year. The offense averaged 26 points per game, returns quarterback Greg Jenkins and added Georgia transfer and 2011 SEC Freshman of the Year Isiah Crowell.
Make no mistake, this year's MEAC/SWAC Challenge will be a dog-fight. Both teams have the players and the ability to compete with top teams in the FCS, so what better way to keep the opening weekend adrenaline running with an exciting matchup on Sunday in the Florida Citrus Bowl in Orlando.