Sunday's seventh installment of the MEAC/SWAC Challenge Cookman versus a relatively inexperienced team in Prairie View A&M
The series pits annual contenders from the two FCS conferences for Historically Black Colleges and Universities against each other. While this game is very early in the season, it can set the tone for each team. The MEAC leads the series 4-2 with South Carolina State being the only team to have won twice.
Sunday's game will take place in Orlando, Fla., at the Florida Citrus Bowl. The game attracts nearly 20,000 fans each season. Bethune-Cookman comes into the season as one of the preseason favorites for a black college national championship.
A look at the two teams:
Bethune-Cookman (MEAC): The Wildcats are led by second-year head coach Brian Jenkins. Jenkins, who won the MEAC Coach of the Year award in 2010. After the Wildcats were MEAC tri-champions a year ago, Wildcats fans are thinking bigger. The Wildcats appear poised for yet another run at the FCS playoffs, with 12 returning starters (six offense, six defense). LB Ryan Lewis (81 total tackles, 14 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 4 interceptions and 4 forced fumbles) is one of the best linebackers in the nation. He's the type of big, physical and fast linebacker who could play on Sundays. The Wildcats had six players on the MEAC preseason first team and three more on the second team. They return two-thirds of a defense that was one of the best in the FCS competition a year ago. With QB Matt Johnson, the 2010 MEAC Offensive Player of the Year, having moved on, the offense will surely need time to jell.
Prairie View A&M (SWAC): The Panthers come into the season under the leadership of new head coach Heishma Northern. He served as the defensive coordinator under Henry Frazier, who moved on to North Carolina Central this offseason. Northern is a veteran of the SWAC, having coached at Southern and Grambling State universities at previous stops. Add that to the fact he has hired away former Bethune-Cookman offensive coordinator Mark Orlando after the 2010 tri-championship season for the Wildcats. The Panthers will have a new signal-caller as they replace school record-holder K.J. Black. With the loss of RB Donald Babers, the Panthers will use a committee approach in the backfield to run behind a very balanced and versatile offensive line, which features all-conference guard James Deckle and tackle Tim Tusey. Similar to running back, wide receiver is a position of relative weakness as the Panthers lost three starters from last year's team and return only relative unknowns. Defensively the Panthers are missing a lot as well. The defensive line suffered losses in DE Quinton Spears and DT Dalvin Nettles. The secondary will feature All-America Moses Ellis, a physical cornerback who excels in press coverage and can lock down one side of the field.
Prediction: Prairie View doesn't have the horses to upset Bethune-Cookman in the MEAC/SWAC Challenge. With the Panthers having a new head coach, and virtually no game experience at any of the offensive skills positions or defensive line, Bethune-Cookman is going to overwhelm them with their experience. It will be interesting to see if the Wildcats pick up where they left off offensively a year ago minus Johnson. Defensively, the Wildcats will field the best defense in the MEAC and perhaps a Top 10 defense nationwide. Look for this one to to be close early, with the Wildcats pulling away early in the second half. Bethune-Cookman 35, Prairie View 16.