(STATS) - After national champion North Dakota State, the team that ended the 2015 FCS season with the biggest flourish was, surprise, North Carolina Central.
A season-ending win over archrival North Carolina A&T was the Eagles' seventh straight and brought with it a second consecutive share of the MEAC title.
But then the Eagles watched A&T win the three-way tiebreaker between them and Bethune-Cookman to go off to play in the inaugural Celebration Bowl. Just as they sat on the sideline in 2014 when Morgan State went to the FCS playoffs after five teams, including the Eagles, tied for the conference crown.
"It keeps our team hungry and focused," third-year coach Jerry Mack said. "It's a constant reminder that we have not earned the respect of our conference members because we are still new to the conference. We are proud to be co-champs in the MEAC, but we think we can do much better. Until we win the conference outright, we will not be satisfied as coaches and players."
N.C. Central, which joined the MEAC from Division II in 2010, seemingly has a strong enough team to break through this season. On Friday, the Eagles were voted third in the 11-team MEAC's preseason poll and placed 10 players on its all-conference team.
North Carolina A&T was picked first in the poll and had 13 preseason selections, and Bethune-Cookman was picked second and collected the conference high with 15 preseason selections. N.C. Central was just ahead of South Carolina State, picked fourth with nine preseason selections.
The Eagles (8-3, 7-1), coming off their Division I high for wins in a season, have never won three straight conference titles. While they must replace their first NFL Draft choice in cornerback Ryan Smith, they have 13 returning starters (seven offensive and six defensive), featuring quarterback Malcolm Bell, offensive linemen Carl Jones and Desmond Cooper, and linebacker Jeremy Miles, who were named to the All-MEAC preseason first team. Running back Dorrel McClain, named to the second team, returns after being the conference's rookie of the year.
Ironically, the Eagles led the FCS in fourth-down conversion percentage on offense (81.8 percent, 9 of 11) and defense (8.3 percent, 1 of 12). They were particularly strong against the run, but Mack seeks improvement against the pass.
The Eagles will open the season with back-to-back FBS opponents in Duke and Western Michigan and then host St. Augustine before they jump into the deep MEAC race.
"I think our team is taking on more of a business-type approach," Mack said. "We understand that every opponent is different and we must come ready to play every week. We have been in games where we have struggled early and get stronger as the game goes along.
"I want our team to walk into every stadium expecting to win games. Not hoping that something goes their way, but each player taking some responsibility to make a play or make something special happen in a positive manner."
The MEAC's preseason players of the year were North Carolina A&T running back Tarik Cohen (offensive) and South Carolina State linebacker Darius Leonard (defensive). Cohen has won the conference's postseason award in each of the past two seasons.
A&T captured the Celebration Bowl, 38-31 over SWAC champion Alcorn State.
MEAC FOOTBALL PRESEASON POLL
Head Coaches and Sports Information Directors Poll
1. North Carolina A&T (13 first-place votes), 489 points
2. Bethune-Cookman (3), 447
3. North Carolina Central (4), 388
4. South Carolina State, 351
5. Hampton (1), 265
6. Norfolk State, 239
7. Morgan State, 192
8. Florida A&M, 164
9. Delaware State (1), 121
10. Howard, 90
11. Savannah State, 48
MEAC FOOTBALL PRESEASON TEAM=
Offensive Player of the Year - Tarik Cohen, RB, North Carolina A&T
Defensive Player of the Year - Darius Leonard, LB, South Carolina State
QB - Malcolm Bell, North Carolina Central, R-Sr.
RB - Tarik Cohen, North Carolina A&T, Sr.
RB - Michael Jones, Bethune-Cookman, Sr.
WR - Twarn Mixson, Hampton, R-Sr.
WR - Jawill Davis, Bethune-Cookman, R-Jr.
TE - Ja-Quan Lumas, Bethune-Cookman, R-Jr.
C - Carl Jones, North Carolina Central, R-Sr.
OL - Brandon Parker, North Carolina A&T, R-Jr.
OL - Javarius Leamon, South Carolina State, R-Sr.
OL - Trevin Huff, Bethune-Cookman, R-Sr.
OL - Desmond Cooper, North Carolina Central R-Sr.
DL - Marquis Ragland, North Carolina A&T, R-Sr.
DL - Angelo Keyes, North Carolina A&T, R-Sr.
DL - Curtis Alexander, Florida A&M, So.
DL - Kevin Thompson, Bethune-Cookman, Jr.
LB - Darius Leonard, South Carolina State, R-Jr.
LB - Dayshawn Taylor, South Carolina State, R-Jr.
LB - Jeremy Miles, North Carolina Central, R-Sr.
DB - Jacques Bryant, Florida A&M, So.
DB - Diquan Richardson, Bethune-Cookman, Jr.
DB - Phillip Henry, South Carolina State, R-Sr.
DB - Deionta Hall, Morgan State, R-Sr.
PK - Jonathan Cagle, Bethune-Cookman, Sr.
PK - Christian Faber-Kinney, Hampton, R-Sr.
P - Cody Jones, North Carolina A&T, Sr.
RS - Khris Gardin, North Carolina A&T, Jr.
QB - Greg Hankerson, Norfolk State, Sr.
RB - Dorrel McClain, North Carolina Central, R-So.
RB - Orlando Johnson, Morgan State, Sr.
WR - Denzel Keyes, North Carolina A&T, Sr.
WR - Montavious Williams, Florida A&M, R-So.
TE - Justin Chaney, Howard, Jr.
C - Phillip Norman, Bethune-Cookman, R-Jr.
OL - Toree Boyd, Howard, Sr.
OL - Marcus Pettiford, North Carolina A&T, So.
OL - Tarrance Wells, North Carolina Central, Sr.
OL - Keonte Cash, Florida A&M, So.
DL - Antonio Brown, North Carolina Central, R-Jr.
DL - Gregtavious Newell, South Carolina State, R-Jr.
DL - Chris Lee, Norfolk State, Jr.
DL - Todney Evans, Bethune-Cookman, R-So.
DL - DeMarcus Womack, Bethune-Cookman, Sr.
LB - Jalen Day, Howard, R-Sr.
LB - Marcus Albert, North Carolina A&T, R-Jr.
LB - Malik Harris, Delaware State, Jr.
DB - William Burton, Delaware State, Sr.
DB - Zerius Lockhart, North Carolina A&T, R-Jr.
DB - Craig Johnson, Howard, Sr.
DB - Davanta Reynolds, North Carolina Central, R-So.
DB - Sandy Chapman, Norfolk State, Sr.
PK - Colby Blanton, Florida A&M, R-So.
P - Cameron Marouf, Norfolk State, Sr.
P - Jerome Pettiway, South Carolina State, Jr.
RS - LaVontis Smith, North Carolina Central, Sr.
QB - Larry Brihm Jr., Bethune-Cookman, R-Jr.
RB - Dondre Brown, South Carolina State, Jr.
RB - Gerard Johnson, Norfolk State, Sr.
RB - Dewayne Garrett, Hampton, R-Sr.
WR - Frank Brown, Bethune-Cookman, R-Jr.
WR - Aris Scott, Delaware State, R-Sr.
TE - Willie Gillus, Morgan State, R-Jr.
C - Darriel Mack, North Carolina A&T, R-Jr.
OL - Donovan Johnson, Hampton, Sr.
OL - Joshua Miles, Morgan State, Jr.
OL - Ryan Gould, Hampton, Jr.
OL - Chuka Ezeuzoh, Delaware State, So.
DL - Malik Hampton-Prioleau, North Carolina A&T, Sr.
DL - Jai Franklin, Morgan State, Jr.
DL - Walter Brantley, Norfolk State, So.
DL - Ja'Quan Smith, North Carolina Central, R-Jr.
LB - Marquis Smith, Savannah State, Sr.
LB - Rashawn Barrett, Delaware State, Sr.
LB - Trenton Bridges, Bethune-Cookman, R-So.
DB - Tard McCoy, North Carolina A&T, R-Jr.
DB - Myle Morris, Hampton, R-Sr.
DB - Arthur Williams, Bethune-Cookman, Jr.
DB - Devondre Powell, South Carolina State, Jr.
PK - John Barron, Savannah State, Sr.
PK - Tyler Scandrett, South Carolina State, Jr.
P - Uriel Hernandez, Bethune-Cookman, So.
RS - Marcus Taylor, Norfolk State, So.