(STATS) - A change in head coaches hasn't tempered the high expectations surrounding Alcorn State, the two-time defending Southwestern Athletic Conference champion.
Alcorn State and Prairie View A&M were selected as the East and West division favorites, respectively, in the SWAC's preseason poll announced during Friday's media day in Birmingham, Alabama.
Alcorn State (9-4, 7-2 SWAC) lost to North Carolina A&T in the inaugural Celebration Bowl last December after beating Grambling State 49-21 in the SWAC championship game. Jay Hopson, the first white head football coach in the conference's illustrious history, resigned to become Southern Mississippi's head coach during the offseason, and Fred McNair, the brother of late Pro Bowl quarterback Steve McNair, was elevated from offensive coordinator. It is the 47-year-old McNair's first head coaching job.
"The biggest thing is, those guys want to get back (to the championship game)," McNair said. "That's what we tell them every week - we talk to them in general about what it's going to take to get back. If they come out, dedicate themselves to it and hard work, anything possible. That's what we're striving for, that's our goal."
While Alcorn State lost some decorated seniors from last year's team, there is plenty of returning talent, including junior quarterback Lenorris Footman, who took over for an injured John Gibbs Jr. last season and surpassed 1,000 yards in both passing and rushing while accounting for 25 total touchdowns. He was a second-team All-SWAC preseason selection - one of the Braves' conference-high 11 overall picks.
"I played behind John Gibbs Jr. and he helped me become a better quarterback," Footman said. "I learned a lot of things from him, and now that I'm in the lead position, I just try to become a better leader and a better quarterback."
Five Alcorn players - offensive lineman Detonio Dade, defensive linemen Stacey Garner and Mike Brooks, linebacker Darien Anderson and punter Haiden McCraney - made the SWAC preseason first team.
Prairie View (8-2, 8-1), which last won the SWAC title in 2009, was installed as the preseason choice in the West over Grambling.
"We're not a team that's big on accolades, we're not a team that's big on preseason hype - things of that nature," said Prairie View second-year coach Willie Simmons, who was the offensive coordinator of Alcorn's 2014 championship squad.
"We try to be a team that says, 'Hey, whoever needs to step up, step up.' But we all have a job to do."
Southern senior running back Lenard Tillery was named the SWAC's preseason offensive player of the year and was one of the Jaguars' seven representatives on the All-SWAC first team. As a junior, Tillery led the conference with 1,211 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns.
Alabama State senior linebacker Kourtney Berry, the conference's defensive player of the year last season, was the preseason choice for this year's award. He enters his final season with 363 career tackles, having led the conference in 2013 and '15 and finishing second in 2014.
SWAC FOOTBALL PRESEASON POLL=
Vote of Coaches and Sports Information Directors
1. Alcorn State, 44 points
2. Alabama State, 35
3. Jackson State, 28
4. Alabama A&M, 16
5. Mississippi Valley State, 12
1. Prairie View A&M, 41
2. Grambling State, 35
3. Southern, 32
4. Texas Southern, 16
5. Arkansas-Pine Bluff, 11
SWAC FOOTBALL PRESEASON TEAM=
Offensive Player of the Year - Lenard Tillery, RB, Southern
Defensive Player of the Year - Kourtney Berry, LB, Alabama State
QB - Austin Howard, Southern
RB - Lenard Tillery, Southern
RB - Martez Carter, Grambling State
OL - Detonio Dade, Alcorn State
OL - Justin Miller, Grambling State
OL - Antonio Mosley, Southern
OL - Josiah Freeman, Prairie View A&M
OL - Terrell Lee, Southern
WR - Chad Williams, Grambling State
WR - Daniel Williams, Jackson State
TE - Dillon Beard, Southern
DL - Stacey Garner, Alcorn State
DL - Javancy Jones, Jackson State
DL - Mike Brooks, Alcorn State
DL - DeVohn Reed, Prairie View A&M
LB - Kourtney Berry, Alabama State
LB - Darien Anderson, Alcorn State
LB - Willie Duncan, Arkansas-Pine Bluff
DB - Guy Stallworth, Grambling State
DB - Marquice O'Leary, Prairie View A&M
DB - Danny Johnson, Southern
DB - Marquis Green, Mississippi Valley State
PK - Marc Orozco, Grambling State
P - Haiden McCraney, Alcorn State
RS - Willie Quinn, Southern
QB - Lenorris Footman, Alcorn State
RB - Khalid Thomas, Alabama State
RB - Arron Baker, Alcorn State
OL - David Adams, Arkansas-Pine Bluff
OL - Sam Baptiste, Alabama State
OL - Frank Carter, Jackson State
OL - Markus Cook, Jackson State
OL - Kerry Williams, Alabama State
WR - Derrick Griffin, Texas Southern
WR - Marquis Warford, Alcorn State
WR - Willie Young, Arkansas Pine-Bluff
TE - Brandon Campbell, Alcorn State
DL - Cornelius Henderson, Jackson State
DL - CeaJae Bryant, Southern
DL - Robert Brown, Alabama State
DL - Roderick Henderson, Alabama State
LB - Bryan Brower, Alabama A&M
LB - Aaron Tiller, Southern
LB - Arkez Cooper, Grambling Stat
DB - D'Andre Smith, Alcorn State
DB - Farrean Toney, Mississippi Valley State
DB - Dominique Weaver, Prairie View A&M
DB - Eric Foster, Alcorn State
PK - Jamie Gillan, Arkansas-Pine Bluff
P - Trevor Vincent, Alabama State
RS - Booker Chambers, Mississippi Valley State
RS - Octayvious Miles, Alabama A&M