(STATS) - If Southwestern Athletic Conference member Prairie View A&M played in the East Division instead of the West Division, it would have won the title by two games last year.
Instead the Panthers finished as the third-place team in the West by two games.
Sure, the large FCS conferences like CAA Football, the Big Sky and the Missouri Valley are stuffed with depth, but the West Division also should be viewed as a gauntlet. It's only five teams deep but boasts the likes of defending SWAC champion Grambling State, Southern and Prairie View, a trio that went a combined 24-3 in conference games, and perfect against the East.
Those three teams were installed in that order in the SWAC's preseason poll on Friday. Over in the East, Alcorn State was favored to win its fourth straight division title.
Incredibly, Grambling (11-1, a second straight 9-0 in the SWAC), Southern (8-3, 8-1) and Prairie View (7-4, 7-2) combined for fewer losses than what Alcorn State (5-6, 5-4) suffered while winning the East under first-year coach Fred McNair. Grambling, under coach Broderick Fobbs, went on to beat Alcorn in the SWAC Championship Game and then topped Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champ North Carolina Central in the second annual Air Force Celebration Bowl to be crowned as the black college football national champion.
This year, the Big Three keep the West Division loaded with talented players again. Grambling collected eight first-team selections and 14 overall on the SWAC preseason team - both conference highs - while Prairie View A&M's eight overall selections were the second-most, and Southern tied Alcorn State for third with seven apiece.
"We start at the starting line at the same place," Fobbs said. "Because you finished first or because you have all these kids on the all-conference team, that means absolutely nothing. They don't give you a 10-yard head start because you do so. So we all have to start at the starting line at the same place. But at the end of the day, the champion is crowned at the end.
"For us, it's about continuing to do the work that we have to do in order to be where we want to be at the end."
Senior quarterback Devante Kincade once again leads Grambling, named the SWAC's preseason offensive player of the year after claiming last year's postseason award. As a junior, he completed 63 percent of his passes for 3,022 yards and 31 touchdowns against just four interceptions.
Southern fell just short of the SWAC Championship Game after ending the regular season with a loss to Grambling in the Bayou Classic. Southern features two of the top players in the conference in quarterback Austin Howard and cornerback Danny Johnson. The team's senior leadership is vital because the Jaguars have to replace the SWAC's all-time leading rusher, Lenard Tillery.
"That mission is somehow getting to the Celebration Bowl," Southern coach Dawson Odums said. "And the way we'll go about doing that is chopping wood and carrying water every day. When our guys fall in love with the process of becoming great, it's easy for us to go A, B to D."
Prairie View has thrived in coach Willie Simmons' first two seasons, going 15-6, but it still seeks a higher level. The Panthers have to improve defensively to match their offensive excellence under Simmons.
They also have to overcome the departure of quarterback Trey Green, although Jalen Morton is experienced at the position.
"We have a great group of guys returning," Simmons said. "We're very excited and hungry to finish what we set out to do when we first took the job.
"We want to look back at the end of December and see that every game we gave ourselves the best chance to be successful."
The SWAC is dropping from a nine-game conference schedule to seven this season - four divisional games and three cross-over games. So the West teams will find it even more important to beat each other.
The SWAC's preseason defensive player of the year is Jackson State defensive end Keontre Anderson. He led the FCS last season with 25½ tackles for a loss, adding nine sacks and six quarterback hurries.
KEY SWAC GAMES=
SWAC Championship Game (Dec. 2 in Houston) - The conference championship game is ending after this year's 19th meeting at NRG Stadium following the SWAC council of presidents and chancellors' vote to suspend it. Commissioner Duer Sharp said the SWAC will instead concentrate on the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl, where the regular season champ will go beginning in 2019.
Five More: Grambling State vs. Prairie View A&M in Dallas (Oct. 7); Alabama A&M vs. Alabama State in Birmingham (Oct. 28); Alcorn State at Grambling State (Oct. 21); Southern at Jackson State (Oct. 21); Grambling State vs. Southern in New Orleans (Nov. 25)
SWAC FOOTBALL PRESEASON POLL=
Vote of Coaches and Sports Information Directors
1. Alcorn State, 80 points
2. Alabama State, 66
3. Jackson State, 59
4. Alabama A&M, 45
5. Mississippi Valley State, 100
1. Grambling State, 85
2. Southern, 68
3. Prairie View A&M, 59
4. Texas Southern, 37
5. Arkansas-Pine Bluff, 21
SWAC FOOTBALL PRESEASON TEAM=
Offensive Player of the Year - Devante Kincade, QB, Grambling State
Defensive Player of the Year - Keontre Anderson, DE, Jackson State
QB - Devante Kincade, Grambling State
RB - Martez Carter, Grambling State
RB - Jordan Bentley, Alabama A&M
OL - Trent Scott, Grambling State
OL - Donovan Wheaton, Prairie View A&M
OL - Timothy Gardner, Alcorn State
OL - William Wadell, Grambling State
OL - Sam Baptiste, Alabama State
WR - KhaDarel Hodge, Prairie View A&M
WR - Devohn Lindsey, Grambling State
TE - Dillon Beard, Southern
DL - Keontre Anderson, Jackson State
DL - Aaron Tiller, Southern
DL - Michael Brooks, Alcorn State
DL - DeVohn Reed, Prairie View A&M
LB - Kenneth Davis, Alabama A&M
LB - Seth Jones, Texas Southern
LB - De'Arius Christmas, Grambling State
DB - Danny Johnson, Southern
DB - Everett Nicholas, Mississippi Valley State
DB - Tere Calloway, Alabama A&M
DB - Derrick Dixon, Grambling State
PK - Nick Carden, Alabama A&M
P - Owen Hoolihan, Prairie View A&M
RS - Martez Carter, Grambling State
QB - Austin Howard, Southern
RB - Sta'Fon McCray, Prairie View A&M
RB - De'Lance Turner, Alcorn State
OL - Skylar Prol, Southern
OL - Deonte Brooks, Alcorn State
OL - Vincent Hunter, Jackson State
OL - Austin Simmons, Alabama A&M
OL - Alvin Solomon, Mississippi Valley State
WR - Norlando Veals, Alcorn State
WR - Darius Floyd, Prairie View A&M
TE - Jordan Jones, Grambling State
DL - Christopher Johnson, Grambling State
DL - James Harper, Prairie View A&M
DL - Brandon Varner, Grambling State
DL - Ramonte Bell, Alcorn State
LB - Kentavious Preston, Southern
LB - Malcolm Williams, Grambling State
LB - Shawn Bishop, Jackson State
DB - Ja'Terious Pouncey, Grambling State
DB - O.J. O'Neal, Alcorn State
DB - Jamar Mitchell, Southern
DB - Percy Cargo, Grambling State
PK - Trevor Vincent, Alabama State
P - Jamie Gillan, Arkansas-Pine Bluff
RS - Joshua Simmons, Prairie View A&M