(STATS) – Last year delivered the first five-way tie atop the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, bringing a whole new early season evaluation process.
Feelings may be mixed through two weeks.
Four of the five MEAC winners from a year ago - Bethune-Cookman, North Carolina A&T, North Carolina Central and South Carolina State - split their opening two games, and Morgan State, which earned last year's automatic postseason bid, is 0-2.
All five teams are expected to compete for a conference title this season, but the nonconference slate hasn't been kind through two weeks. The group is 0-4 against FBS opponents while splitting four games versus the FCS and winning two against Division II teams.
Morgan State has likely had the roughest go, playing without 10 academically ineligible players during a 63-7 loss to Air Force and a 67-14 defeat to No. 5 Illinois State. The Bears also started 0-2 last season, though, and coach Lee Hull cautions not to put too much stock into early season records.
"Sometimes the records don't indicate how good our programs are, how good the league is, because we are playing some BCS schools," Hull said during this week's MEAC teleconference. "I don't really get into looking this early in the season and saying what team is good, what team isn't good because it's not a very good indication."
The six teams finishing at the bottom of the MEAC last year have also struggled with an 0-7 record against the FBS, 0-3 versus the FCS and one win against a Division II opponent.
The only victories for conference teams not coming against Division II competition were Bethune-Cookman's 53-50 thriller over Grambling State last weekend and South Carolina State's opening 35-7 victory over Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
South Carolina State was the only co-conference winner last year to not face an FBS opponent in the first two weeks, beating the Golden Lions before falling flat with a 41-14 home-opening loss to Coastal Carolina. The Bulldogs grabbed the MEAC's first conference win with a 36-0 win over Florida A&M on Thursday night, ahead of Friday night's second MEAC matchup between Hampton and Howard.
Each of the conference's remaining seven games on Saturday are of the nonconference variety.
1,000 AND COUNTING=
Friday night's conference opener against rival Howard will be the 1,000th game in Hampton history. The Pirates (1-1) will hit the milestone on a big stage at Washington D.C.'s RFK Stadium, and it will be broadcast on ESPNU.
Hampton might not need the extra motivation as Howard (0-2) has won bragging rights the last four years, snapping Hampton's streak of 14 consecutive wins in the rivalry matchup.
"It's a big-time rivalry game," said Hampton coach Connell Maynor. "They don't need me to give them a pep talk this week."
Howard has yet to score points against two FBS opponents this season with a 49-0 opening loss at Appalachian State and a 76-0 defeat at Boston College.
Maynor was fined by the MEAC on Monday after his comments about the officiating of his team's 31-28 loss to Richmond last week, coming after a 35-20 win over Kentucky State to open the season.
South Carolina State (2-1) ran all over Florida A&M (0-3) to pick up the MEAC's first conference victory Thursday night in Orangeburg.
The Bulldogs piled up 625 total yards, 454 on the ground, and three rushing touchdowns while holding the Rattlers to 261 total yards. South Carolina State's Tyler Scandrett added three field goals as the Bulldogs recorded their first shutout since last October.
Jalen Simmons led the charge on the ground with 190 rushing yards on 16 carries, and Dondre Lewis-Freeman chipped in 105 yards on 16 attempts and a TD.
"This win was just what the doctor ordered," Bulldogs coach Buddy Pough said. "It was a good game for us, a chance to have a great positive home experience and play well."
The win was South Carolina State's fourth straight and 12th in the last 13 meetings against Florida A&M.
Saturday's MEAC schedule features seven nonconference games. Three of them come against FBS opponents, while one is an FCS matchup and two feature Division II teams.
The final matchup is a bit odd, pitting Morgan State against Virginia University of Lynchburg. The NCAA included the Dragons on a list of 34 non-countable programs this summer, meaning the game won't be considered for statistics - including rankings and records.
Hull said it was too late to reschedule another team once the news broke about Lynchburg in late May, but a victory in Saturday's 4:30 p.m. home game could do a lot for his 0-2 squad.
"Even if it's non-countable it helps the players' mindsets," Hull said. "We need a win right now. Hopefully we get our confidence back."
Savannah State (0-1) opens Saturday with a noon game at Akron, while the second FBS matchup comes at 3:30 p.m. when Norfolk State (0-2) play at Marshall. The third is set for 6 p.m. between North Carolina Central (1-1) and host FIU.
North Carolina A&T (1-1) goes on the road to try and beat FCS opponent Elon for the third straight year at 6 p.m., while the two matchups against D-II teams have Delaware State (0-2) hosting Chowan at 2 p.m. and Bethune-Cookman (1-1) hosting Lane at 4 p.m.
ON THE OUTSIDE LOOKING IN=
North Carolina A&T, Bethune-Cookman and South Carolina State received votes but not nearly enough to crack the Week 3 STATS FCS poll. North Carolina A&T picked up the most with 34, well behind No. 25 Harvard's 297.