(STATS) - The SWAC has been filled with the haves and the have-nots in recent seasons, and the powers look to be in control again in 2017.
Alcorn State has represented the East Division in the last three SWAC championship games and captured two overall titles. Grambling State won the conference crown last season in its second straight appearance in the championship game, while Southern was the West representative in the prior two title games, winning one.
All three teams return their starting quarterback and other key veterans from successful teams. So while optimism reigns in the spring across the rest of the conference, will it be there in late fall?
Following is a look across the SWAC with spring practices underway in college football:
Head Coach: James Spady (11-23, three seasons)
2016 Records: 4-7, 4-5 SWAC
Spring Practices: March 30-April 22
What to Know: With 15 returning starters (eight on defense), the Bulldogs seek to reach a higher level of success after finishing only one game behind East Division champion Alcorn State. Spady likes that there are a few choices at quarterback, where Damion May will try to beat out younger candidates. Running back Jordan Bentley, the 2016 SWAC freshman of the year, fronts a deep position, and the Bulldogs have a veteran offensive line, although they need to improve with pass protection. The Bulldogs surrendered too many points (38.7) and yards (460.7) per game and must get better up front after ranking last in the conference against the run. Key defenders Tere Calloway and Devonte Simon are out this spring after having shoulder surgery.
Head Coach: Brian Jenkins (10-12, two seasons; 56-26 overall)
2016 Records: 4-7, 3-6 SWAC
Spring Practices: April 1-29
What to Know: The hiring of Jenkins has yet to pay off considering the Hornets won at least seven games in each of the five seasons prior to his arrival. The Hornets hope the third year in his system will pay off. Like rival Alabama A&M, the Hornets return seven starters on offense and eight on defense, but their five All-SWAC selections were seniors last season, so the losses are significant. The Hornets are starting anew where offensive plays begin, replacing their starting center, quarterback and running back. They play four of their first five games at home.
Head Coach: Fred McNair (5-6, one season)
2016 Records: 5-6, 5-4 SWAC
Spring Practices: March 6-April 22
What to Know: It will be difficult for the other East teams to unseat Alcorn State as the three-time reigning division champion. A healthier Lenorris Footman figures to reclaim the quarterback job from Noah Johnson and make the offense formidable. It already returns all of the key running backs and five of the top six wide receivers. That group includes versatile Marquis Warford, who was the SWAC 2015 newcomer of the year but was injured much of last season. While the offense returns eight starters, the defense has seven back, including three of the four defensive linemen and four of the five defensive backs. Adding to the theme of last season, defensive back Brady Smith returns from injury.
Head Coach: Tony Hughes (3-8, one season)
2016 Records: 3-8, 3-6 SWAC
Spring Practices: March 7-April 8
What to Know: A difficult start to the season (trips to TCU and Grambling State and the annual matchup with Tennessee State) will make it hard for the Tigers to get a jump on posting an improved record in Hughes' second season. They're returning only four starters on offense and six on defense. Neither Jarin Morikawa not Brent Lyles solidified the quarterback position, but they are the frontrunners again. The running game should be solid with Jordan Johnson coming off a solid rookie campaign. The defense lost standouts in Cornelius Henderson and Javancy Jones, but defensive end Keontre Anderson is back for his senior season after he posted 25 1/2 tackles for loss and nine sacks.
MISSISSIPPI VALLEY STATE=
Head Coach: Rick Comegy (4-29, three seasons; 168-115 overall)
2016 Records: 1-10, 1-8 SWAC
Spring Practices: March 21-April 8
What to Know: Comegy's experience in the SWAC hasn't turned around MVSU's struggles - the Delta Devils have posted a 1-8 conference record in each of his three seasons. They return 11 starters (six on defense) and believe it's time to step up the execution. Two key areas can help facilitate that: they have veterans at quarterback, led by Austin Bray and Slade Jarman, and on the defensive line. The running game was abysmal, averaging 25 net yards per game, so the Delta Devils have to get stronger on the offensive line and at running back. They open the season at FCS power North Dakota State.
Head Coach: Monte Coleman (38-62, nine seasons)
2016 Records: 1-10, 1-8 SWAC
Spring Practices: March 27-April 22
What to Know: Since winning the SWAC title in 2012, the Golden Eagles have gone 7-29 in conference games. Strangely, their only win last season was against East Division champ Alcorn State. This year's defense returns all but one starter, although it's a big loss - linebacker Willie Duncan, who posted three straight 100-tackle seasons. On offense, the Golden Eagles return a productive quarterback in Brandon Duncan, but he was constantly under pressure as opponents racked up 47 sacks. Duncan will have to develop chemistry with his wide receivers after the loss of UAPB all-time receptions leader Willie Young and Cody Swain, who combined for 122 catches.
Head Coach: Broderick Fobbs (27-9, three seasons)
2016 Records: 11-1, 9-0 SWAC
Spring Practices: March 15-April 1
What to Know: Grambling State is an impressive 25-2 in regular-season conference games under Fobbs and it won last year's SWAC championship and the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl. The Tigers will probably enter the 2017 season as the preseason favorite, but they have to replace a handful of All-SWAC players, including NFL-bound wide receiver Chad Williams, safety Guy Stallworth and defensive tackle Donovan McCray, who was the conference's defensive player of the year. But they might have the SWAC's two best offensive players in senior quarterback Devante Kincade and running back Martez Carter. Plus, Fobbs brought in a number of offensive and defensive linemen to create depth in the trenches.
PRAIRIE VIEW A&M=
Head Coach: Willie Simmons (15-6, two seasons)
2016 Records: 7-4, 7-2 SWAC
Spring Practices: Feb. 28-April 8
What to Know: Two excellent seasons have opened the Simmons era at PVAMU. With the departure of Trey Green, quarterback is an open competition between Jalen Morton, who saw a lot of action as a freshman, Neiko Hollins and Lavell McCullers. The winner of the competition will be surrounded by an experienced offense, including the running back rotation of Sta'fon McCray, Dawonya Tucker and Caleb Broach, and senior wide receiver/returner Joshua Simmons, who was the SWAC's 2016 newcomer of the year. The defense, like the offense, returns seven starters, but it hasn't been as successful. The Panthers will work on improving their red zone defense behind tackle DeVohn Reed, who hopes to lead a resurgence.
Head Coach: Dawson Odums (36-21, five seasons)
2016 Records: 8-3, 8-1 SWAC
Spring Practices: None (APR penalties)
What to Know: Considering the West Division was so strong last season, the Jaguars might be a candidate to take a step backward in 2017. They aren't having spring drills because of APR penalties, and although they return quarterback Austin Howard, the loss of key personnel around him, including all-time SWAC rushing leader Lenard Tillery, wide receiver Willie Quinn and offensive linemen Terrell Lee and Anthony Mosely, is significant. The defense is in better shape with the return of 2016 SWAC interceptions leader Danny Johnson and linebacker/defensive end Aaron Tiller. Southern will begin its season by hosting South Carolina State in the annual MEAC/SWAC Challenge.
Head Coach: Michael Haywood (4-7, one season; 14-22 overall)
2016 Records: 4-7, 4-5 SWAC
Spring Practices: March 20-April 15
What to Know: TSU was victimized by being in the wrong division last season because they went 3-1 against the East with only a three-point loss at Alcorn State. In Year 2 under Haywood, the Tigers have to settle the quarterback position. It will be Jay Christophe's job if he is cleared to return from a knee injury; otherwise, it could go to one of the two signees, Elijah Odom or Austin Sessums. The future arrived at running back last season as leading rushers Tylor Cook and Brad Woodard were freshmen. The defense has to improve against the run and replenish at linebacker. Overall, the Tigers return 11 starters, but only four on defense.