HBCU football returns this fall after a year where teams navigated the challenges of a pandemic that caused some teams to play in the spring while others opted out altogether. The long-awaited return to a traditional schedule has captivated players, fans, students and alumni as they prepare to dive into a compelling season.
Here are six preseason storylines to watch as the season approaches.
6 storylines to watch in the 2021 HBCU football season
1. How does the MEAC respond after losing three of its premier teams?
Since we last saw the MEAC play a complete season, the conference has lost three teams. Bethune-Cookman (SWAC), Florida A&M (SWAC) and North Carolina A&T (Big South) have all officially left the conference in the last year. They take with them storied histories, intense rivalries and all but two of the MEAC championships since 2010.
Six teams remain in the MEAC, but there are plenty of questions surrounding the future of the once-mighty conference. Can these six teams carry the MEAC’s illustrious tradition alone, or will losing three teams stand out in 2021?
2. How do the MEAC defectors fit into their new conferences?
When Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman announced their intention to join the SWAC, an immediate question emerged: Could these schools compete in the gauntlet that is the SWAC conference schedule? There’s not a week in the SWAC where the Rattlers or the Wildcats can breathe easy as almost every conference opponent has a realistic shot at a championship.
As the new kids on the block, Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman are sure to have a target as well. When you add the cultural adjustment between the MEAC and SWAC, there is a lot to navigate for these two football programs.
Elsewhere, North Carolina A&T is the second HBCU to join the Big South, following in Hampton’s footsteps after the Pirates joined in 2018. In Hampton’s first year of conference play, it finished 1-5 in conference and 5-7 overall.
A similar season would be disappointing for North Carolina A&T, as it won four of the last five Celebration Bowls. The Aggies will look to maintain their track record of success in their new conference, but games against teams like preseason No. 13 Monmouth ensure that the road will not be easy.
RANKINGS: Find out where HBCUs landed in the FCS preseason poll
3. Was Alabama A&M’s SWAC championship a product of a shortened season?
Last spring, Alabama A&M won its first SWAC championship since 2006. However, the title came in a pandemic shortened season that saw postponements and did not feature two-time defending champion Alcorn State.
In 2019, the last complete season, the Bulldogs finished 4-3 in conference play leading some to wonder if the spring 2021 championship was a product of unique circumstances.
Despite any doubts, Alabama A&M will enter the season with a chance to repeat as SWAC champion. The Bulldogs and preseason Walter Payton Award candidate QB Aqeel Glass will look to prove any doubters wrong.
4. How does a year off impact Alcorn State?
We last saw Alcorn State take the field in the 2019 Celebration Bowl as the two-time defending SWAC Champions. Braves QB Felix Harper finished as a finalist for the 2019 Walter Payton Award.
However, after opting out of the 2021 spring season, some may have forgotten about Alcorn State. After not playing a year, the Braves rejoin the SWAC stage with much to prove.
With the MEAC/SWAC Challenge against North Carolina Central to open the season, questions surrounding Alcorn State will be dispelled or given validity on a national stage early on.
PREDICTIONS: Find out where each HBCU program is predicted to finish in 2021
5. Can Southern’s Jordan Lewis add his name to the history books?
In the history of FCS football, only one player has ever won the Buck Buchanan Award twice as the top defensive player: Dexter Coakley of Appalachian State (1995-96). Reigning award winner Jordan Lewis has the chance to add his name to that list in the fall of 2021.
Lewis returns to Southern after leading the FCS in sacks (10.5) and tackles for loss (15) during the spring. If the defensive end can come close to replicating these stats, he has a chance to add more hardware to his collection.
6. How does Jackson State perform with a complete offseason and a new influx of talent?
Jackson State is one of the most enigmatic teams in HBCU football entering the season. After hiring head coach Deion Sanders, the program has often been in national headlines.
PRIMETIME: See all of Deion Sanders's collegiate achievements
Last spring, the Tigers finished 4-3. Joining the roster this fall, they’ll have a highly touted recruiting class with big-name recruits and transfers galore. Most importantly, they’ll have prized QB recruit Shedeur Sanders — Deion’s son — starting his collegiate career.
On paper, the Tigers have arguably the most talented team in the SWAC. How quickly this talent comes together and performs will determine Jackson State’s success this fall.