(STATS) - Few, if any, foresaw Morgan State capturing a share of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference title and its first-ever FCS playoff bid at the start of last season.
The Bears were getting acclimated to a first-year head coach, hadn't won the league title in 35 years and were picked ninth in the conference's preseason poll.
They didn't touch first place in October and endured a 45-0 loss with two weeks left in the season.
Yet on the final Saturday of the regular season, everything that had to go right did, and Morgan State was one of five teams to earn a share of the title. The tie-breakers then fell the Bears' way and, just like that, they found themselves a postseason berth.
That's all changed this year. Opponents aren't sleeping on these Bears, although at Friday's MEAC media day in Norfolk, Virginia, they were selected fifth in what promises to be another deep title race. North Carolina A&T was handed the favorite's role, with South Carolina State picked second, Bethune-Cookman third and North Carolina Central fourth. Not surprisingly, those schools were the other four teams to own a share of the championship last season.
"We want to be a fundamental, disciplined and physical team," said Morgan State coach Lee Hull, whose team went 6-2 in the MEAC and 7-6 overall in 2014, ultimately falling to Richmond in the playoffs.
"They must go out and prepare even harder because we know that teams will not overlook us this year. Our preparation will be the same as last year, we will not do anything different than what got us to this point because we are now the hunted. Just be aware that the situation has changed and understand what that means."
Morgan State is strong enough in the offensive backfield that 2013 starters Seth Higgins (quarterback) and Lamont Brown III (running back) are fighting to regain their jobs from their replacements, quarterback Moses Skilton and running back Herb Walker Jr. Walker literally ran away with his opportunity, rushing for 1,408 yards and 13 touchdowns in a breakout campaign, and he gets All-MEAC preseason first-teamers Dominique Woods and Matthew Thompson back up front.
Defensively, the Bears have room to be better, and new coordinator Mike Fanoga hopes to find some answers. Cornerback Delonta Hall returns as the unit's top player.
Morgan State also appears to have an advantage thanks to the 11-team MEAC's unbalanced scheduling. The Bears won't face fellow defending co-champs North Carolina A&T (which delivered what seemed to be a 45-0 knockout blow at that time) and South Carolina State.
The MEAC has four new head coaches in Bethune-Cookman's Terry Sims, Delaware State's Kenny Carter, Florida A&M's Alex Wood and Norfolk State's Latrell Scott. Each will seek success similar to Hull's first season at Morgan State.
But that potential success will no longer result in an FCS playoff appearance. The MEAC is no longer sending its champion to the postseason. Instead, on Dec. 19, the MEAC champ will face the Southwestern Athletic Conference winner in the new Celebration Bowl in Atlanta.
MEAC PRESEASON POLL=
1. North Carolina A&T (9 first-place votes), 425 points.
2. South Carolina State (4), 408.
3. Bethune-Cookman (1), 387.
4. North Carolina Central (4), 334.
5. Morgan State, 318.
6. Hampton (2), 276.
7. Norfolk State, 170.
8. Florida A&M, 164.
9. Howard, 146.
10. Delaware State (1), 97.
11. Savannah State (1), 69.
MEAC PRESEASON TEAM=
Offensive Player of the Year - Tarik Cohen, RB, North Carolina A&T
Defensive Player of the Year - Javon Hargrave, DT, South Carolina State
QB - Malcolm Bell, North Carolina Central, R-Jr.
RB - Tarik Cohen, North Carolina A&T, Jr.
RB - Herb Walker Jr., Morgan State, Jr.
WR - Twarn Mixon, Hampton, R-Jr.
WR - Isaac White, Norfolk State, Sr.
TE - Myles Williams, Howard, R-Sr.
C - Dominique Woods, Morgan State, Jr.
OL - Toree Boyd, Howard, Jr.
OL - Dariusz Bladek, Bethune-Cookman, Jr.
OL - Clevonne Davis, North Carolina Central, Sr.
OL - Matthew Thompson, Morgan State, So.
DL - Javon Hargrave, South Carolina State, Sr.
DL - Miles Grooms, Hampton, Sr.
DL - Michael Lovejoy, Florida A&M, Sr.
DL - Marquis Ragland, North Carolina A&T, R-Jr.
LB - Deon King, Norfolk State, Sr.
LB - Joshua Thorne, Hampton, Sr.
LB - Darius Leonard, South Carolina State, R-So.
DB - Tony McRae, North Carolina A&T, Sr.
DB - Mike Jones, North Carolina Central, Jr.
DB - Delonta Hall, Morgan State, R-Jr.
DB - Terrick Colston, Delaware State, Sr.
PK - Cody Jones, North Carolina A&T, Jr.
P - Christian Faber-Kinney, Hampton, Jr.
RS - Mike Jones, North Carolina Central, Jr.
FIVE KEY MEAC GAMES=
Hampton vs. Howard (Sept. 18) - "The Battle for the Real HU" is going under the Friday night lights at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C.
South Carolina State at Bethune-Cookman (Oct. 10) - There's been no bigger matchup in the MEAC in recent seasons.
Morgan State at North Carolina Central (Oct. 24) - Morgan State has a manageable conference schedule to build on last year's breakout campaign. But the host Eagles have this game circled on their schedule.
Bethune-Cookman at Florida A&M (Nov. 21) - The Florida Classic drew 41,126 to the Florida Citrus Bowl last year when Bethune won an overtime thriller.