As compared to the larger NCAA Division I football conferences like the Southeastern Conference, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference’s preseason luncheon did not garner national attention.
For those with team members and Football Championship Subdivision observers, the one-day event held this past Friday in Norfolk, Va., offered some interesting revelations which can only increase anticipation for the upcoming season:
1. Bethune-Cookman is considered the team to beat, but South Carolina State still commands respect.
As the defending MEAC champions and owners of a 13-game conference-winning streak, the Wildcats enter the new season with great swagger and a high confidence level. Since taking over in Daytona Beach in 2010, Brian Jenkins has made a meteoric rise to the top of the conference coaching ranks in leading Bethune-Cookman to a 28-7 overall record, 21-3 in the MEAC and a share of two regular-season titles. Another perfect season in conference play would leave the Wildcats one shy of South Carolina State’s MEAC-record 22 straight conference wins set from 2007-2010.
The Bulldogs’ success throughout the Buddy Pough era was not a distant memory for the sports information directors and athletics directors, however. Despite suffering a losing season for the first time since 2000 and entering this season with question marks on offense (many of which can be rectified with the rehiring of Joseph Blackwell as offensive line coach and offensive coordinator) S.C. State was picked to finish second in the preseason poll.
It’s also worth noting the Bulldogs face Bethune-Cookman for homecoming Oct. 26 at Municipal Stadium — a place where they have won three straight times. In fact, the road team in non-neutral site games has won the last five straight meetings dating back to 2004. Was that a factor, along with the consistency S.C. State has shown during the Buddy Pough era, which earned it a large number of preseason votes? Only time will tell.
2. A high preseason team ranking does not guarantee high representation of players on the All-Conference teams and vice versa.
While Pough believes the poll may inspire other MEAC teams who had winning seasons last year who finished under S.C. State in the poll, the same could be true for the Bulldogs and the preseason All-Conference teams. This year’s first- and second-team rosters included only three S.C. State players (DL Javon Hargrave, P Nick Belcher and LB Justin Hughes) with four honorable mentions (Belcher, OL Domanic Wilson, DL Andrew Carter and WR Tyler McDonald), a far cry from years past.
“We’ve got athletes at South Carolina State,” Tristan Bellamy said. “We’ve got talent. It’s just a matter of getting them recognized and a matter of those guys stepping up and getting them recognized. But I feel like we’ll have more players recognized in the preseason and postseason.”
A MEAC team which was well-represented on the All-Conference team was Delaware State. Only Florida A&M with six had more players on the first-team roster than the five by the Hornets, who posted their first winning season since 2007 under head coach Kermit Blount.
Nevertheless, Delaware State was picked to finish eighth in this year’s MEAC race. Perhaps a large reason for the conference skepticism is the departure of MEAC Offensive Player of the Year quarterback Nick Elko and All-Conference wideouts Travis Tarpley and Justin Wilson.
“The preseason polls are good for conversation, but what happens on the field is all that matters,” Blount told dsuhornets.com. “We lost a number of key players from last year, but we have a solid group of veterans returning and some promising newcomers. There are a lot of question marks on our team, and we have great deal of work to do to get ready for the new season.”
The Hornets can take solace in the fact they exceeded expectations last season in tying for third place after getting picked to finish 10th. Delaware State could also benefit from the rotating conference schedule, where it will not face North Carolina Central and S.C. State the next two years.
3. The chance of two MEAC playoff teams looks very promising this season.
Lost in all the preseason speculation is the changed FCS landscape. Starting this season, the football playoff field will expand from 20 to 24 teams.
Under the new format, eight teams will be seeded, earn first-round byes and host second-round games against first-round winners.
Perhaps even more significant is the absence of traditional FCS powers. With Appalachian State and Georgia Southern transitioning to Division I, thereby being ineligible for postseason play, the door has opened for other teams from the MEAC, Southern and Big South to fill the void and increase their playoff representation.
Expanded opportunities will also go a long way toward the MEAC snapping its 16-game playoff losing streak. It’s a challenge the Bulldogs very much want to have another crack at breaking after a three-year postseason absence.
S.C. State opens preseason camp at 9:10 a.m. Saturday.
Contact the writer: firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 533-5547. For more information about S.C. State athletics, read Grant’s blog, Following the Bulldogs, at www.thebulldogzone.com. Follow Grant on Twitter at T&DSports.