(STATS) - Everybody remembers what Grambling State did last season - the Tigers won the SWAC title, captured the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl and were crowned as the black college football national champions.
Ah, but few might remember Alcorn State nearly writing a much different story.
The Braves led Grambling 17-0 early in the third quarter and never trailed until the final 3:38 of the SWAC championship game. They squandered that huge opportunity in their 27-20 loss, missing out on a three-peat of conference titles.
The feeling hasn't escaped the Braves throughout the offseason. They're predicted to win the East Division for the fourth straight season and earn a return trip to NRG Stadium in Houston for the final SWAC title tilt.
"Our expectations are very high - we tell our players and the coaching staff knows it," second-year coach Fred McNair said. "And the way things are now, where they're predicting us to finish first in the East (Division), it's a little added pressure. But our expectations are already set - we expect to get back to the SWAC championship.
"Yes, that would be kind of a disappointing thing if we didn't get back this year. If we keep everybody up, if we keep everybody healthy, that's our ultimate goal."
The 10-team SWAC has moved to a seven-game conference schedule after all teams played each other in previous seasons. The conference also has decided to end its 19-year championship game after this season and send its regular-season champ to the Celebration Bowl beginning next year.
Alcorn State and Grambling have met in the last two SWAC title games. Will they have a postseason rubber match in December?
Following is a team-by-team breakdown of the 2017 SWAC race and STATS' predicted order of finish:
1. Alcorn State
2. Alabama State
3. Alabama A&M
4. Jackson State
5. Mississippi Valley State
1. Grambling State
3. Prairie View A&M
4. Texas Southern
5. Arkansas-Pine Bluff
1. ALCORN STATE BRAVES
LOCATION: Lorman, Mississippi
STADIUM: Jack Spinks Stadium
COACH: Fred McNair (5-6, one season)
2016 RECORDS: 5-6, 5-4 SWAC (1st East)
STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (8 offense/7 defense)
THREE KEY LOSSES: Detonio Dade, OL; Darien Anderson, LB; Haiden McCraney, PK
ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Marquis Warford, RB/WR/KR, R-Sr. (38 carries, 442 yards, 6 TDs; 36 receptions, 478 yards, 4 TDs in 2015)
ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Michael Brooks Jr., DE, Sr. (31 TT, 5.5 TFL, 4 Sacks, 5 PBU, 5 QBH, 1 FR)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Lenorris Footman, QB, Sr.; Noah Johnson, QB, R-So.; De'Lance Turner, RB, Sr.; Norlando Veals, WR, R-Jr.; Brandon Campbell, TE, R-Jr.; Deonte Brooks, LT, Jr.; Tim Gardner, RT, Sr.; Sterling Shippy, DT, Jr.; Ramonte Bell, DE, Sr.; Trae Ferrell, LB, Jr.; Javen Morrison, DB, So.; Leishaun Ealey, SS, Jr.; Quentin Smith, DB, Jr.; O.J. Neal, DB, Jr.
OUTLOOK: Having won three straight East Division titles, the Braves are a clear favorite to get back to the SWAC championship game (they captured the 2014 and '15 conference titles). Footman, injured throughout last season, and Johnson are accomplished quarterbacks and most of their favorite skill position players are back. That includes the versatile Warford, who was the SWAC 2015 newcomer of the year, but was sidelined much of last season. Although some key defensive players are gone, the Braves will be strong on the defensive line and in the secondary. They tied for the conference high with 38 sacks a year ago.
Sept. 2, Miles
Sept. 9, at FIU
Sept. 16, McNeese
Sept. 23, Southern*
Sep. 30, at Texas Southern
Oct. 7, at Alabama State*
Oct. 14, Prairie View A&M*
Oct. 21, at Grambling State*
Nov. 4, Alabama A&M*
Nov. 11, Mississippi Valley State*
Nov. 18, at Jackson State*
* - SWAC game
2. ALABAMA STATE HORNETS
LOCATION: Montgomery, Alabama
STADIUM: Hornet Stadium
COACH: Brian Jenkins (10-12, two seasons; 56-26 overall)
2016 RECORDS: 4-7, 3-6 SWAC (Tie/3rd East)
STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (7 offense/6 defense)
THREE KEY LOSSES: Khalid Thomas, RB; Jylan Ware OL; Kourtney Berry, LB
ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Sam Baptiste, OL, Sr.
ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Ronnie Scott, CB, Sr. (42 TT, 2 TFL, 3 INT, 12 PBU)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: D.J. Pearson, QB, Jr. (Arkansas State transfer); Alex Anderson, RB, Jr.; Rob Pritchett, RB, So.; C.J. Cook, RB, Fr.; Nygel Lee, WR, So.; Willis White, WR, Sr.; Shaw Powell, OL, R-Sr.; Caleb Kinnikin, OL, Sr.; Uvakeious McGhee, DE, Jr. (Troy transfer); Darron Johnson, LB, So.; Dominique Jackson, LB, Sr.; Jeff Hill, CB, Jr. (Northern Illinois transfer); Marquis Howard, CB, Jr. (Northern Illinois transfer); Kurron Ramsey, S, R-Jr.; Trevor Vincent, PK, Sr.; Dylan Renaker, LS, Jr.
OUTLOOK: At Alabama State, Jenkins hasn't matched the great success he had in the MEAC at Bethune-Cookman. After losing five All-SWAC seniors, the Hornets look to some FBS transfers for a quick turnaround. Those include QB Pearson arriving from Arkansas State, where he was dismissed last fall. The offense relied on Thomas (1,237 rushing yards) last season and might replace him with a running back committee. Defensively, the Hornets have to improve against the pass. Seeking a fast start, they play four of their first five games at home. But they have to play with more discipline after ranking second-to-last in the FCS with 91.3 penalty yards per game.
Sept. 2, Tuskegee
Sept. 9, at Troy
Sept. 16, Kennesaw State
Sept. 23, Prairie View A&M*
Oct. 7, Alcorn State*
Oct. 14, at Texas Southern*
Oct. 28, Alabama A&M* (at Legion Field, Birmingham, Alabama)
Nov. 4, at Jackson State*
Nov. 11, Grambling State*
Nov. 18, at Mississippi Valley State*
Nov. 23, Cheyney
* - SWAC game
3. ALABAMA A&M BULLDOGS
LOCATION: Huntsville, Alabama
STADIUM: Louis Crews Stadium
COACH: James Spady (11-23, three seasons)
2016 RECORDS: 4-7, 4-5 SWAC (2nd East)
STARTERS RETURNING: 17 (8 offense/9 defense)
THREE KEY LOSSES: De'Angelo Ballard, QB; Tevin McKenzie, WR; Jonathan Dorsey, TE
ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Jordan Bentley, RB, So. (159 carries, 851 yards, 9 TDs)
ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Kenny Davis, LB, Sr. (98 TT, 10.5 TFL, 2 Sacks, 4 PBU)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Damion May, QB, R-So.; Aqeel Glass, QB, Fr.; Byran Brower, RB, Gr.; Monte Jones, WR, So.; Kalais Robertson, TE, Sr.; Rod Randolph, H-back, Sr.; Austin Simmons, OL, Sr.; Alvintae Kirksey, OL, Sr.; Averee Giles, DL, Sr.; Bryan Brower, LB, Gr.; Tere Calloway, DB, Sr.; Dexter Reese, DB, Sr.; Devonte King, DB, Sr.; Nick Carden, PK/P, Sr.
OUTLOOK: A&M finished only one game behind East Division champion Alcorn State, but there's still a gap in the division. To close it, the Bulldogs have to improve defensively, particularly against the run, after they allowed too many points (38.7) and yards (460.7) per game. The defense, though, returns its top six tacklers, led by Davis (also the SWAC's top returning tackler) and Calloway. May hopes to hold on as the No. 1 QB, especially because the Bulldogs have an experienced offensive line and Bentley is the reigning SWAC freshman of the year. A&M is the only FCS team that will play three FBS opponents this season.
Sept. 2, at UAB
Sept. 9, at Vanderbilt
Sept. 16, at South Alabama
Sept. 23, Texas Southern*
Sept. 30, Arkansas-Pine Bluff*
Oct. 7, at Southern*
Oct. 14, Mississippi Valley State*
Oct. 28, Alabama State* (at Legion Field, Birmingham, Alabama)
Nov. 4, at Alcorn State*
Nov. 11, Jackson State*
Nov. 18, Kentucky State
* - SWAC game
4. JACKSON STATE TIGERS
LOCATION: Jackson, Mississippi
STADIUM: Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium
COACH: Tony Hughes (3-8, one season)
2016 RECORDS: 3-8, 3-6 SWAC (Tie/3rd East)
STARTERS RETURNING: 12 (8 offense/4 defense)
THREE KEY LOSSES: Jarin Morikawa, QB; Dan Williams, WR; Javancy Jones, DL/LB
ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Jordan Johnson, RB/KR, So. (75 carries, 477 yards, 2 TD)
ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Keontre Anderson, DE, Sr. (55 TT, 25.5 TFL, 9 Sacks, 6 QBH, 1 FF, 1 BK)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Brent Lyles, QB, Jr.; Robert Johnson, RB, Sr.; Jevon Floyd, WR, Sr.; Carle Ollie, WR, So.; Romello Shumake, WR, Sr.; Vincent Hunter, OL, R-Sr.; Malik Hamner, DL, Jr.; Khalil Johnson, DL, So.; Andre Lloyd, LB, Sr.; Shawn Bishop, LB, Sr.; Dario Robinson, DB, Sr.; Brandon Maiden, DB, Sr.; Christian Jacquemin, PK/P, Jr.
OUTLOOK: The Tigers' schedule is daunting, but they hope to peak later in the season because their final four games are within the East Division. There are about 40 newcomers - transfers, redshirt freshmen and true freshmen. Lyles didn't solidify the quarterback position last season, but he was a standout in the spring game. He will want to make good use of the emerging Johnson, who averaged over six yards per carry as a rookie. The defense lost standouts in Jones and Cornelius Henderson, but Anderson is one of the better pass rushers in the FCS.
Sept. 2, at TCU
Sept. 9, Tennessee State (at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, Memphis)
Sept. 16, at Grambling State
Sept. 23, Arkansas-Pine Bluff*
Sept. 30, at Prairie View A&M*
Oct. 14, at Tuskegee (at Cramton Bowl, Mobile, Alabama)
Oct. 21, Southern*
Oct. 28, at Mississippi Valley State*
Nov. 4, Alabama State*
Nov. 11, at Alabama A&M*
Nov. 18, Alcorn State*
* - SWAC game
5. MISSISSIPPI VALLEY STATE DELTA DEVILS
LOCATION: Itta Bena, Mississippi
STADIUM: Rice-Totten Field
COACH: Rick Comegy (4-29, three seasons; 168-115 overall)
2016 Records: 1-10, 1-8 SWAC (5th East)
STARTERS RETURNING: 8 (3 offense/5 defense)
KEY LOSSES: Austin Bray, QB; Booker Chambers, WR/RS; Khalil Young, DL
ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Alvin Solomon, OL, Sr.
ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Everett Nicholas, DB, R-Jr. (23 TT, 2 TFL, 4 INT, 3 PBU)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Jett Even, QB, Jr. (Pasadena City College transfer); Charlie Crenshaw, RB/WR, Jr.; Jessie Bryant, WR, Sr.; Bryant Jones, DT, Jr.; Deago Bolar, DT, Jr.; Amani Peoples, DE, So.; Patrick Harbin, DE, Jr.; Farrean Toney, WR/DB, R-Jr.; Mark Pegues, DB, Jr.; Jordan Freeman, DB, Jr.; Nick Jacquemin, PK, So.
OUTLOOK: With the fewest returning starters in the SWAC, the Delta Devils' two-deep will look quite different, which might not be a bad thing considering their struggling program has gone 1-8 in conference during each of Comegy's first three seasons. He believes it's only a matter of time before there's improvement, but the Delta Devils have to step up the execution. The offense was awful last season, producing a mere 25 net rushing yards per game. Even, a transfer, hopes to steady the offense as the new quarterback. The defense also should be better. The September schedule is overwhelming, so any success wouldn't figure to occur until midseason.
Sept. 2, at North Dakota State
Sept. 9, at Southern Illinois
Sept. 23, Grambling State*
Sept. 30, at Charleston Southern
Oct. 7, at Arkansas-Pine Bluff*
Oct. 14, at Alabama A&M*
Oct. 21, Virginia-Lynchburg
Oct. 28, Jackson State*
Nov. 4, Texas Southern*
Nov. 11, at Alcorn State*
Nov. 18, Alabama State*
* - SWAC game
1. GRAMBLING STATE TIGERS
LOCATION: Grambling, Louisiana
STADIUM: Eddie Robinson Stadium
COACH: Broderick Fobbs (27-9, three seasons)
2016 Records: 11-1, 9-0 SWAC (1st West); SWAC and Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl champion; No. 16 in final STATS FCS Top 25
STARTERS RETURNING: 12 (6 offense/6 defense)
3 KEY LOSSES: Chad Williams, WR; Donovan McCray, DT; Guy Stallworth, S
ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Devante Kincade, QB, Sr. (218 of 341, 3,022 yards, 31 TD, 4 INT; 104 carries, 264 yards, 4 TD)
ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: De'Arius Christmas, MLB, Jr. (69 TT, 7.5 TFL, 4 Sacks, 2 PBU, 1 QBH, 3 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Martez Carter, RB/RS, Sr.; Lyndemian Brooks, RB, So.; Devohn Lindsey, WR, R-Jr.; Jordan Jones, TE, R-So.; Trent Scott, OL, R-Sr.; William Waddell, OL, So.; Brandon Varner, DE, Jr.; Deontae Hatter, LB, Sr.; Malcolm Williams, LB, Jr.; Derrick Dixon, LB/S, Sr.; Deaumante Johnson, CB, Sr.; Ja'Terious Pouncey, CB, Sr.
OUTLOOK: A number of talented players departed, including Arizona Cardinals third-round draft choice Chad Williams, but the defending SWAC and Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl champs have reloaded, including with signees for both lines. They're an impressive 25-2 in regular-season conference games under Fobbs. They also may have the conference's two best offensive players in Kincade, the SWAC's 2016 offensive player of the year, and Carter, one of the more versatile players in the FCS. Christmas and Dixon are the defensive leaders for a unit that surrendered 16.1 points per game last season - more than 11 fewer than the No. 2 team.
Sept. 2, at Tulane
Sept. 9, Northwestern State
Sept. 16, Jackson State
Sept. 23, at Mississippi Valley State*
Sept. 30, Clark Atlanta (at Soldier Field, Chicago)
Oct. 7, Prairie View A&M* (at Cotton Bowl, Dallas)
Oct. 21, Alcorn State*
Oct. 28, Texas Southern*
Nov. 4, at Arkansas-Pine Bluff*
Nov. 11, at Alabama State*
Nov. 25, Southern* (at Mercedes Benz Superdome, New Orleans)
* - SWAC game
2. SOUTHERN JAGUARS
LOCATION: Baton Rouge, Louisiana
STADIUM: Ace W. Mumford Stadium
COACH: Dawson Odums (36-21, five seasons)
2016 RECORDS: 8-3, 8-1 SWAC (2nd West)
STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (6 offense/8 defense)
THREE KEY LOSSES: Lenard Tillery, RB; Willie Quinn, WR; Terrell Lee, C
ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Austin Howard, QB, Sr. (192 of 330, 2,650 yards, 29 TD, 8 INT)
ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Danny Johnson, DB, Sr. (57 TT, 1 TFL, 7 INT, 9 PBU, 1 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Randall Menard, WR, R-Sr.; Dontrell Brown, WR, R-Sr.; Dillon Beard, TE, R-Sr.; Christian Rodriguez, OL, Sr.; Jeremiah Abby, OL, So.; Jodeci Harris, OL, R-So.; Aaron Tiller, DE/LB, Sr.; Ceajae Bryant, DL, R-So.; Simeon Houston, DL, So.; Kentavious Preston, LB, Sr.; Demario Houston, DB, Jr.; Jamar Mitchell, DB, R-Sr.; Ruan Albuquerque, PK, Sr.
OUTLOOK: Southern is one of several SWAC teams with a difficult September schedule, but the Jaguars appear ready for the challenge. Their defense is in better shape than the offense with Johnson, who tied for the FCS high in interceptions last season, and Tiller leading the way. On offense, Howard must be asking where all the fellow standouts have gone from the SWAC's top-scoring offense, including Tillery, the all-time leading rusher in the conference. They might have to rely on Howard's arm even more this season.
Sept. 3, South Carolina State
Sept. 9, at Southern Miss
Sept. 16, at UTSA
Sept. 23, at Alcorn State*
Sept. 30, Fort Valley State
Oct. 7, Alabama A&M*
Oct. 21, at Jackson State*
Oct. 28, at Arkansas-Pine Bluff*
Nov. 4, Prairie View A&M*
Nov. 11, at Texas Southern*
Nov. 25, Grambling State* (at Mercedes Benz Superdome, New Orleans)
* - SWAC game
3. PRAIRIE VIEW A&M PANTHERS
LOCATION: Prairie View, Texas
STADIUM: PVAMU Football Stadium
COACH: Willie Simmons (15-6, two seasons)
2016 RECORDS: 7-4, 7-2 SWAC (3rd West)
STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (7 offense/7 defense)
THREE KEY LOSSES: Trey Green, QB; DeMarquo LaStrappe, WR; Marquice O'Leary, S
ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: KhaDarel Hodge, WR, R-Sr. (28 receptions, 454 yards, 6 TD)
ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: DeVohn Reed, DT, R-Sr. (40 TT, 11 TFL, 8 Sacks, 1 PBU, 1 QBH)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Jalen Morton, QB, R-So.; Neiko Hollins, QB, R-Fr.; Lavell McCullers, QB, R-Jr.; Sta'Fon McCray, RB, R-Sr.; Dawonya Tucker, RB, So.; Caleb Broach, RB, So.; Darius Floyd, WR, R-Sr.; Joshua Simmons, WR/RS, R-Sr.; Shawn Pierce, OT, R-Jr.; Donovan Wheaton, OT, Sr.; James Harper, DT, Sr.; Jalen Coleman, LB, R-Sr.; Anthony Stubbs, LB, Jr.; Arthur Lockett, DB, R-Sr.; Raleigh Johnson, FS, R-Sr.; Owen Hoolihan, PK/P, R-Jr.
OUTLOOK: Simmons has done a terrific job at Prairie View, leaving a division title as the next step. Of course, the Panthers have to improve defensively, especially in the red zone. Defensive tackles Reed and Harper are anchors to help make that happen. The winner of the quarterback competition will be pleased by all of the offensive weapons, including the running back rotation of McCray, Tucker and Broach as well as Simmons, who's coming off 2016 SWAC newcomer of the year honors.
Sept. 2, at Texas Southern*
Sept. 9, Sam Houston State
Sept. 16, at Nicholls
Sept. 23, at Alabama State*
Sept. 30, Jackson State*
Oct. 7, Grambling State* (at Cotton Bowl, Dallas)
Oct. 14, at Alcorn State*
Oct. 28, Bacone
Nov. 4, at Southern*
Nov. 11, Arkansas-Pine Bluff*
Nov. 18, at Incarnate Word
* - SWAC game
4. TEXAS SOUTHERN TIGERS
STADIUM: BBVA Compass Stadium
COACH: Michael Haywood (4-7, one season; 14-22 overall)
2016 RECORDS: 4-7, 4-5 SWAC (4th West)
STARTERS RETURNING: 11 (6 offense/5 defense)
THREE KEY LOSSES: Averion Hurts, QB; Jamal Lucas, LB; Eric Medina, PK/P
ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Brad Woodard RB, Jr. (116 carries, 515 yards, 3 TD)
ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Sean Jones, LB/S, R-Jr. (77 TT, 10 TFL, 3 Sacks, 3 QBH)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Jay Christophe QB, R-Sr.; Tylor Cook, RB, So.; C.J. Eddison RB, R-Jr.; Darvin Kidsy WR, Jr.; Jeremiah Credit WR, So.; Tracy Johnson WR, Sr.; Mario Smalls TE, R-Sr.; Mildren Montgomery OL, Jr.; Archie Rice DB, Sr.; Zaphir Murphy DB, So.; Dondre Dobbins DB, Sr.; Rayvon Beard DB, So.; Nick Dehoyos DB, So.
OUTLOOK: The Tigers are coming off a competitive season despite the losing record. So much in Haywood's second season depends on Christophe returning from a knee injury and taking command of the offense. Woodard and Cook were excellent running backs as freshmen and remain building blocks. With only five starters returning on defense, the Tigers have to mature quickly. They're quite inexperienced at linebacker. Not to be overlooked is the loss of Medina, who made 15 of 16 field goal attempts.
Aug. 26, at Florida A&M
Sept. 2, Prairie View A&M*
Sept. 7, Houston Baptist
Sept. 23, at Alabama A&M
Sept. 29, Alcorn State*
Oct. 7, at Kennesaw State
Oct. 14, Alabama State*
Oct. 28, Grambling State*
Nov. 4, at Mississippi Valley State*
Nov. 11, Southern University*
Nov. 18, at Arkansas-Pine Bluff*
* - SWAC game
5. ARKANSAS-PINE BLUFF GOLDEN LIONS
LOCATION: Pine Bluff, Arkansas
STADIUM: Golden Lion Stadium
COACH: Monte Coleman (38-62, nine seasons)
2016 RECORDS: 1-10, 1-8 SWAC (5th West)
STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (7 offense/8 defense)
THREE KEY LOSSES: Willie Young, WR; David Adams, OL; Willie Duncan III, LB
ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Brandon Duncan, QB, Sr. (209 of 337, 2,229 yards, 10 TD, 6 INT)
ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Tashad Charity, DE, Jr. (63 TT, 12 TFL, 4 Sacks, 1 PBU, 5 QBH, 1 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Jaimon Peterson, RB; Terry Montgomery, RB, Jr.; Kolby Watts, ATH, Fr.; John Hawkins, WR, Sr.; Robert Simms III, WR, Fr.; Jalen Collins, TE, Jr.; Jose Salvado, OL, So.; Louis Jackson III, OL, Fr.; Nicholas Stroud, DL, Jr.; Je'Kevin Carter, LB, Sr.; David White, DB, Sr.; Shufon Alcorn, DB, Jr.; Jaimie Gillian, PK/P, Jr.
OUTLOOK: Entering his 10th season, Coleman has to get the Golden Eagles back on track. They're only 7-29 in SWAC games since capturing the conference title in 2012. Duncan became the national offensive player of the week when he led an early-season upset of Alcorn State for their only win. But the Golden Eagles allowed 47 sacks and the season collapsed from there. Plus, the passing game has to overcome the loss of Young, UAPB's all-time receptions leader. Speaking of losses, Duncan is gone from the defense after posting three straight 100-tackle seasons.
Sept. 2, Morehouse
Sept. 9, at Akron
Sept. 16, at Arkansas State
Sept. 23, at Jackson State*
Sept. 30, at Alabama A&M*
Oct. 7, Mississippi Valley State*
Oct. 14, Central State
Oct. 28, Southern* (at War Memorial Stadium, Little Rock, Arkansas)
Nov. 4, Grambling State*
Nov. 11, at Prairie View A&M*
Nov. 18, Texas Southern* (at War Memorial Stadium)
* - SWAC game