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Stan Becton | NCAA.com | August 23, 2022

2022 preseason HBCU football power rankings

FCS football season preview: Players to watch, potential upsets and more

The HBCU football season is nearly here and it's time to make my first HBCU football power rankings of 2022.

These will be done weekly throughout the regular season, sorting each HBCU football team at the FCS level based on their performances. Nicknamed The Road to Atlanta, the weekly power rankings lead to the annual meeting of HBCU football's two best teams at this year's Celebration Bowl in Atlanta.

All records listed are 2021 fall records. All previous rankings are from the 2021 season-ending power rankings.

The HBCU Top 3

1. Jackson State | SWAC | 12-2 | Prev: 3

Jackson State enters the 2022 HBCU football season as the top-ranked team. The Tigers went undefeated in the SWAC last year before losing in the Celebration Bowl. Plenty of talent from that team returns for head coach Deion Sanders.

Quarterback Shedeur Sanders enters the year in the conversation for the best quarterback in the entire FCS, with weapons all around. Wide receiver Malachi Wideman led the team in touchdowns last year and the offense features newcomers like transfer running back Sy'veon Wilkerson — a first-team All-MEAC selection at Delaware State in 2021 — and four-star wide receiver recruit Kevin Coleman.

On defense, linebacker Aubrey Miller is as consistent as they come. Moreover, defensive backs Shilo Sanders, Cam'Ron Silmon-Craig and De'Jahn Warren all return in the secondary. The secondary adds Travis Hunter — a preseason FCS All-American and the highest-rated recruit in FCS history. Jackson State's influx of talent combined with last season's success earns the Tigers the top spot.

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2. Florida A&M | SWAC | 9-3 | Prev: 1

Florida A&M is coming off an FCS playoff appearance in 2021. The Rattlers return Buck Buchanan Award-winning linebacker Isaiah Land as one of the top players in the nation. While the defense did lose safety Markquese Bell to the NFL, head coach Willie Simmons grabbed Iowa State transfer Kym-Mani King to replace him. King joins a secondary featuring an elite HBCU cornerback in BJ Bohler, making Florida A&M's defense a strength again in 2022.

However, the Rattlers still face questions offensively. The skill positions should be set with wideouts Xavier Smith and Jah'Marae Sheread back, and running back A.J. Davis transferred in from Pittsburgh to help ease the loss of Bishop Bonnett. Yet, Florida A&M still has concerns about the quarterback position. 

Rasean McKay was the primary starter under center in 2021, but he's currently in a quarterback competition with Junior Muratovic (McKay was benched for Muratovic at a point last season) and Vanderbilt transfer Jeremy Moussa.

While they say if you have two quarterbacks — in this case, three-plus — you have none, Florida A&M's defense is strong enough that the Rattlers enter the year ranked second.

3. South Carolina State | MEAC | 7-5 | Prev: 2

South Carolina State is the defending Celebration Bowl and MEAC champion. So why do they begin the year ranked third?

One reason is that the Bulldogs struggled in their non-conference schedule last year, finishing with a 7-5 record. In 2022, South Carolina State plays three non-conference FCS HBCUs — Bethune-Cookman, North Carolina A&T and Florida A&M — and a win in each game can send a statement across the HBCU landscape.

To do so, the Bulldogs will have to recover from the loss of MEAC Defensive Player of the Year and NFL draft pick Decobie Durant. However, it won't be the first time head coach Buddy Pough has dealt with a loss to the NFL — see Leonard, Darius — and South Carolina State has plenty of other returning talent. Running back Kendrell Flowers, wide receiver Shaq Davis and defensive end Jeblonski Green should all have big years.

CLASSICS: Here's every 2022 HBCU football classic in the FCS

HBCU Spots 3-10

With the top three teams out of the way, now is where things get really interesting. There's a gap between the top three teams and the rest of the field entering 2022, but the rest of the top-10 teams are close.

4. Alabama A&M | SWAC | 7-3 | Prev: 4

Alabama A&M gets the fourth spot in 2022, despite losing star quarterback Aqeel Glass. On offense, the Bulldogs still return running back Gary Quarles and wide receiver Abdul-Fatai Ibrahim, two of the best among HBCUs at their positions.

Yet, who will replace Glass?

Alabama A&M's starting quarterback entering Week 1 could be anyone. Quincy Casey is a 2021 Jackson State transfer who threw an interception in his three passes last year, Coran Taylor transfers in this year from Illinois but played defensive back in 2021 and Xavier Lankford has only thrown 12 passes in his Bulldog career. 

Luckily, Alabama A&M opens the season with two FBS opponents creating a potential opportunity for the quarterback competition to go a bit longer if things remain dicey. However, the tandem minds of head coach Connell Maynor and offensive coordinator Duane Taylor should be able to figure things out. 

The quality coaching plus the insane amount of transfers that the Bulldogs got over the offseason gets Alabama A&M the fourth spot.

5. North Carolina A&T | Big South | 5-6 | Prev: 10

For the first time since 2011, North Carolina A&T had a losing season, going 5-6. It also was the first time the Aggies played in the Big South. In 2022, the Aggies and those in the Big South envision a bounce-back season as North Carolina A&T is the preseason favorite to win the conference. 

The Aggies will open the season against North Carolina Central, one of three HBCU opponents on the schedule in 2022 after finishing last year 2-1 against HBCU opponents. The biggest test on North Carolina A&T's schedule is by far defending national champion North Dakota State on Sept. 10

With a loaded schedule and a quarterback competition brewing, head coach Sam Washington will have his work cut out for him in 2022.

6. Alcorn State | SWAC | 6-5  | Prev: 6

Alcorn State is the first team in the preseason rankings from the wide-open SWAC West. The Braves lose starting quarterback Felix Harper but return all-conference running back Niko Duffey. It's not the first time head coach Fred McNair has had to replace talent and he's consistently proven himself as a great coach. Alcorn State should be in the conversation for the SWAC West title come November.

🏆: HBCU football championship history

7. Southern | SWAC | 4-7 | Prev: 13

Southern has been one of the trendiest teams in HBCU football this offseason, but the Jaguars still finished 4-7 last year. So, what changed?

It starts at the top. Southern nabbed head coach Eric Dooley from 2021 SWAC West champion Prairie View A&M.

Then, the Jaguars were active in the transfer portal. The biggest move was All-SWAC defensive lineman Jason Dumas following his head coach to Southern. Dumas combines with spring 2021 Buck Buchanan Award winner Jordan Lewis to create nightmares for opposing offensive line coaches when trying to figure out who to double team.

Southern made another big move in the transfer portal when a pair of Bowie State defensive backs, Jordan Carter and Demetri Morsell, transferred in. In 2019, Morsell was arguably the best player in all of Division II football and he's back to full health in 2022. He and Carter bolster the Jaguar secondary.

Like most of the top-10 teams, Southern is also trying to find its new quarterback for 2022. Bubba McDaniel is the most experienced in the competition, but BeSean McCray was a junior college All-American last year and Noah Bodden showed potential at times at Grambling State in 2021. We saw what Coach Dooley could do with a quarterback in one year last year at Prairie View. All eyes will be on Dooley's new team in 2022 as Southern tries to rise to the top.

8. North Carolina Central | MEAC | 6-5 | Prev: 5

North Carolina Central has one thing all but two other top-10 teams have, stability with a returning quarterback. Davius Richard is back under center after throwing for 2,133 yards and accounting for 23 total touchdowns. 

In 2021, the Eagles lost by only three points to the eventual Celebration Bowl champion and won the MEAC/SWAC Challenge. North Carolina Central also won its last three games to end the season. If the Eagles can carry that momentum into 2022, they could be in Atlanta come December.

9. Tennessee State | Ohio Valley | 5-6 | Prev: 12

2021 marked head coach Eddie George's first year at the helm. Tennessee State finished 5-6 but was in the OVC conference title race entering November. The Tigers return standouts at running back in Devon Starling, guard in Robert Lacey, and linebacker in James Green to name a few. Tennessee State also reloads at the quarterback position with Austin Peay transfer Draylen Ellis, the 2020 OVC Co-Freshman of the Year in 2020 and a 2021 second-team All-OVC pick.

Tennessee State starts the season with a big-time non-conference game against Eastern Washington, followed by the Southern Heritage Classic against Jackson State. The Tigers will play two FCS HBCUs this year and wins will be pivotal to rise in this year's rankings.

10. Prairie View A&M | SWAC | 7-5 | Prev: 7

2021 SWAC West champion Prairie View A&M enters 2022 just inside the top 10. The Panthers ended last year on a downswing, losing four-straight games. In the offseason, the Panthers lost their head coach to a rival SWAC team, their starting quarterback Jawon Pass exhausted his eligibility and all-conference safety Drake Cheatum transferred to the FBS level.

Despite the losses, Prairie View A&M did win its division last year and talent from that team remains. However, the SWAC West only got tougher, presenting a new challenge for the Panthers.

CAN'T MISS: 6 HBCU football game-day atmospheres that you need to experience

The rest of the field

Here's how the rest of the HBCUs sort out.

11. Norfolk State | MEAC | 6-5 | Prev: 8

The first year for Norfolk State under head coach Dawson Odums started great. The ending? Not so much as the Spartans lost their final three games, missing out on a potential Celebration Bowl berth. 

In the offseason, Norfolk State knew it would lose all-conference quarterback Juwan Carter, but it also lost several other contributors in a transfer exodus, including MEAC Offensive Lineman of the Year Justin Redd. 

That's a rough stretch.

Odums will have to right the ship at Norfolk State in 2022. Luckily, he can turn to returning veterans like running back J.J. Davis, wide receiver Justin Smith, center Colby Byrd and cornerback Brandon Savage.

12. Delaware State | MEAC | 5-6 | Prev: 11

Delaware State could finish near the top of the MEAC this year or near the bottom. It's up in the air. Delaware State's average point differential against MEAC foes in 2021 was 5.4 points, but they lost their two best offensive players in running back Sy'Veon Wilkerson and wide receiver Trey Gross.

As Delaware State regroups and builds toward success in 2022, it will play two non-FCS opponents in the first three weeks. That's a great opportunity for the Hornets to build momentum before MEAC play.

13. Grambling State | SWAC | 4-7 | Prev: 15

Head coach Hue Jackson takes over the reins at Grambling State in 2022, bringing his NFL coaching experience. Before anointing the Tigers as a top-10 HBCU football team from coaching alone, Grambling State has to rebound from a 4-7 2021 season and it must find a new quarterback.

Finding a quarterback will be Jackson's biggest task in 2022 and he has no shortage of options, led by UCLA transfer and former four-star recruit Kajiya Hollawayne and junior college-product Quaterius Hawkins. On defense, Sundiata Anderson should again be an imposing presence off the edge.

14. Hampton | CAA | 5-6 | Prev: 9

Gone are the days of Hampton in the Big South. In comes the Pirates as one of the CAA's newest members. However, Hampton was predicted to finish last in its new conference.

Predictions aside, Hampton has talent entering this year, highlighted by playmaking wide receiver Jadakis Bonds. The Pirates open the season with the Battle of the Real HU against Howard before playing the Battle of the Bay against Norfolk State two weeks later. Those two FCS HBCU games will determine early on how high — or how low — Hampton can go in the rankings.

2022 Celebration Bowl: Date, time, location, tv channel, history

15. Alabama State | SWAC | 5-6 | Prev: 16

Alabama State enters 2022 with a new head coach in Eddie Robinson Jr. and plenty of changes to the defensive coaching staff after some assistants left the program for Morgan State.

Beyond coaching changes, Alabama State's roster features two first-team preseason All-SWAC selections in offensive lineman Robert Alston and defensive back Irshaad Davis. The duo and the rest of the team will represent the SWAC on a national stage in the 2022 MEAC/SWAC Challenge.

16. Howard | MEAC | 3-8 | Prev: 19

The biggest question for Howard entering 2022 is will this be the year that quarterback Quinton Williams takes the jump and places himself amongst the upper echelon of HBCU quarterbacks?

If he takes that jump, he'll have Howard in the conversation for the MEAC conference championship down the stretch. If not, the Bison may struggle again.

Williams has the talent around him to compete in the MEAC this year, with wide receiver Antoine Murray plus offensive linemen Darius Fox and Anim Dankwah providing protection. The offense will get its first test in Week 0's 2022 MEAC/SWAC Challenge.

17. Bethune-Cookman | SWAC | 2-9 | Prev: 18

The transition to the SWAC was... rough, to say the least, for Bethune-Cookman in 2021, losing eight-straight games to open the season. Yet, the Wildcats went 2-1 over their last three games.

Bethune-Cookman showed signs of putting it all together at the end of last season. With star players like tight end Kemari Averett and defensive back Omari Hill-Robinson leading the way, the Wildcats have the potential to have a better season in their second go-around in the SWAC.

AWARDS: Walter Payton Award history Buck Buchanan Award history |  Jerry Rice Award history 

18. Mississippi Valley State | SWAC | 4-7 | Prev: 14

Mississippi Valley State won four games in 2021. It was their best season since 2012. Head coach Vincent Dancy has proven himself as a good coach, with the Delta Devils remaining competitive, even in losses.

Running back Caleb Johnson is arguably the best at his position in the SWAC and could take on a workhorse role again in 2022 after notching 232 carries last year.

19. Texas Southern | SWAC | 3-9 | Prev: 17

Texas Southern has its quarterback of the future in Andrew Body, only a freshman last year. Yet, as good as Body is, we'll have to wait and see how far he can take a Texas Southern team that has struggled mightily in recent memory.

20. Arkansas-Pine Bluff | SWAC | 2-9 | Prev: 20

From SWAC West champions to the bottom of the division, that was the story of 2021 for Arkansas-Pine Bluff. The Golden Lions lost seven-straight games at one point last year.

As Arkansas-Pine Bluff tries to get back to its winning ways, it will have the attention of many, thanks to standout offensive tackle ​​Mark Evans II.

21. Morgan State | MEAC | 2-9 | Prev: 21

Morgan State lost its head coach in 2021 to the Denver Broncos but replaced him with one of the most successful Division II HBCU coaches in history, hiring Damon Wilson from Bowie State. Wilson brings a winning culture, but it may take time for him to turn things around as Morgan State's last season over .500 came in 2014.

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