Published January 08, 2015
Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The declining Southwestern Athletic Conference has endured a lot of criticism in recent seasons, but the title races sure are interesting.
Quite simply, they're so wide open each season.
There are five teams in the West Division and each one has won the SWAC title over the last five years (although Texas Southern vacated its 2010 championship).
Since the SWAC switched to a championship game in 1999, either Alabama A&M, Alabama State or Jackson State has been the East Division representative. This year, Alcorn State could change that dynamic, having gone 9-3 last season for its first winning record since 2006.
Here's a look across the conference with spring practices getting underway across the nation:
Four SWAC programs have new head coaches: Alabama A&M (James Spady), Grambling State (Broderick Fobbs), Jackson State (Harold Jackson) and Mississippi Valley State (Rick Comegy).
Comegy was Jackson State's coach the last eight seasons and certainly knows success in the SWAC. He led JSU to a 55-35 record, the 2007 conference title and appearances in the title game each of the past two seasons. Trying to build a consistent winner at MVSU is another story, though.
Grambling State is trying to get back to normal after a horrific 2013 season in which the Tigers had three coaches, went 1-11 and forfeited a game against Jackson State during a six-day player walkout. The schedule doesn't help Fobbs, a GSU alumnus who played under the legendary Eddie Robinson. He won't coach his first home game until the Tigers' seventh game on Oct. 11.
Defending SWAC champion Southern must find a way to replace the production of quarterback Dray Joseph and wide receiver Lee Doss, who were both all- conference first-team selections. Deonte Shorts could be the new quarterback and Willie Quinn was productive as the No. 2 receiver last year.
With a veteran offensive line (four returning starters) and the running back trio of Malcolm Cyrus, Jahaad Coleman and Khalid Thomas, Alabama State can win games by controlling the clock.
Prairie View A&M must improve a defense that ranked eighth in the conference in scoring defense and ninth in total defense, but it will try to do so under Cliff Yoshida, its third defensive coordinator in three seasons.
Texas Southern coach Darrell Asberry went big in the recruiting class, bringing in four 300-pound offensive linemen and defensive tackles such as Derrick Lyles (JUCO transfer) and Derrick Lyles.
Quarterback LaMontiez Ivy was injured in Jackson State's first game last season. The former top recruit is the favorite to win the starting job.
Alabama A&M quarterback Jaymason Lee will welcome three of his top five receivers back to the fold, led by wide receiver Montarius Smith. Tight end Johnathan Dorsey made the All-SWAC first team.
Arkansas-Pine Bluff's Ben Anderson was the All-SWAC first-team quarterback in 2012. Last season didn't go as well and Anderson will try to get the Golden Lions back on track.
Alcorn State quarterback John Gibbs, who threw for 21 touchdowns against only five interceptions, will come up big again. The junior-to-be is 6-foot-6 but quite mobile in the open field.
Mississippi Valley State wants to get the ball in the hands of senior wide receiver Julian Stafford, who has had back-to-back seasons of over 50 receptions. He also averaged over 23 yards on 32 kickoffs.
Grambling State linebacker Steve Orisakwe, who led the team in tackles, was the team's only All-SWAC selection, making the second team.
Anderson will need some offensive linemen to protect him. UAPB coach Monte Coleman has opened the competition as the unit seeks improvement.
With standout linebackers Anthony Balancier and Franchot West, Southern is trying to fill the two spots in its 3-4 defense. Daniel Brown and Detrane Lindsey will provide veteran leadership at the other two spots.
Alcorn State will find it difficult to replace SWAC rushing champion Arnold Walker, who was the conference's co-offensive player of the year. JUCO transfer Darryan Ragsdale joins returnees Anthony Williams III, Joe Price and Robert Clay in the hunt for the starting job.
At Prairie View A&M, senior Jacoby Anderson hopes to replace No. 1 wideout and 1,000-yard receiver Deandre Cooper.
Texas Southern running back Daveonn Porter would be a bigger name around the conference if he didn't get hurt during his junior season. He will get his share of yards on the ground and catch passes out of the backfield as well.
Alabama State defensive tackle Justin Mitchell started emerging as a disruptive force last season.
Jackson State has been waiting on wide receiver/kickoff returner Tobias Singleton to produce big numbers. The former Ole Miss transfer has one more opportunity as a senior.
Southern fullback Brian McCain will play a big role as the Jaguars hope to improve a running game that averaged only 112.5 yards per outing.
READY FOR IMPROVEMENT
Spady says his new staff at Alabama A&M is determined to lift the special teams. The Bulldogs ranked 10th and last in the SWAC in punting, kickoff coverage and field goals, and ninth in kickoff return average, punt return average and PATs.
Jackson State went 7-4 last season despite having a negative-21 turnover margin, which was the worst in the FCS. With the loss of cornerback Qua Cox and some other seniors, the experience in the secondary is a concern, and the Tigers picked off only four passes.
Alabama State is seeking improvement from its secondary after the Hornets ranked ninth in the conference in pass defense.
Grambling State surrendered 35.4 points per game - almost unheard of at the former SWAC power.
Mississippi Valley State had the worst rushing attack in the SWAC, averaging a mere 85.7 yards per game.
SPRING PRACTICE DATES
Alabama A&M: April 4-26
Alabama State: March 4-April 12
Alcorn State: March 18-April 12
Arkansas-Pine Bluff: March 31-April 26
Grambling State: March 6-22
Jackson State: March 19-April 12
Mississippi Valley State: April 1-19
Prairie View A&M: March 18-April 11
Southern: March 5-29
Texas Southern: March 25-April 12