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September 21, 2016

(STATS) - South Carolina State coach Buddy Pough and his players are going into their MEAC opener hoping the worst is behind them.

Most of the other conference teams have similar feelings.

Only one of the 11 teams has a winning record and seven of them are winless after an opening three weeks of the season in which the MEAC posted a 4-23 record in out-of-conference games.

South Carolina State, a perennial title contender in the conference, has had the worst of it, losing to three FBS opponents, including shutouts against UCF and Clemson.

North Carolina A&T, ranked 21st in the STATS FCS Top 25, has come out looking the best at 2-1, having beaten FBS (Kent State) and Division II (St. Augustine's) opponents. Overall, the MEAC is 1-14 against FBS opponents, 0-8 versus FCS teams and 3-1 against D-II programs.

"I think we've scheduled in a lot of ways heavily against the teams that were probably better than us," South Carolina State coach Buddy Pough said. "The league as a whole, I think is pretty representative of what they were last year. I think we have a lot of young teams."

The sorting out process in the conference starts to take shape on Saturday. There are four conference matchups, including South Carolina State at Florida A&M, in addition to Delaware State playing an impossible game at Missouri - one of only four out-of-conference games remaining for MEAC teams.

"FAMU is very similar to us," Pough said. "They've played three games and hadn't gotten a win yet. I guess the big talk sounds like to me is everybody talking about the guarantee deal (against FBS teams) and they've played a game or two that way, too. Of course, we both need a win at this point. It's imperative that we move into our conference race now on a positive note."

A tough start to the season is not new to the MEAC. September is usually reserved for playing FBS opponents, and wins over them are few and far between. But the paydays with such games, which generally go into the hundreds of thousands, are viewed as necessary for the athletic budgets.

All 11 MEAC programs except Norfolk State are playing at least one FBS program. South Carolina State went to the extreme with three FBS opponents (Louisiana Tech was the other). UT Martin from the Ohio Valley Conference is the only other FCS team playing three FBS opponents, but one is Hawaii, so it's doing so in a 12-game schedule.

"I like the idea of playing some of those guys and I think our guys need the exposure to those type games, and I enjoy all that," N.C. A&T coach Rod Broadway said. "But I don't like the idea of why we play 'em. I think that's a different story."

"Guarantee games that everybody is playing now," Norfolk State coach Latrell Scott said, "we're doing it because we have to, not necessarily because we want to. When you're given a challenge, you have to embrace those challenges."

The challenge now is in the conference race. Hampton has the early jump with a victory over Howard last Saturday.

N.C. A&T was installed as the favorite by a preseason vote of MEAC coaches, with Bethune-Cookman picked second and North Carolina Central third. Those three teams tied for the title last season, and A&T represented the conference in the inaugural Celebration Bowl, where the Aggies beat SWAC champion Alcorn State.

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