It’s been more than 600 days since Markquese Bell put on an orange-and-green uniform for a football game with 25,500 fans cheering him and his teammates on inside of Bragg Memorial Stadium.
In his last outing on the gridiron, Bell—a Stats Perform FCS First Team Defensive All-America at Florida A&M—was flying all around the field making plays, securing a team-high 12 tackles in a nail-biting 31–27 loss in the closing minutes of the 2019 Florida Classic against Bethune-Cookman in front of 55,730 people at Camping World Stadium.
“This is the longest I’ve been away from football,” Bell says. “It has been tough, but I’m ready to get back out there.”
The 6' 3", 205-pound defensive back was one of many Rattler players whose dream of playing the fall 2020 season—and then, in spring 2021—was cut short due to the ongoing concerns of the coronavirus pandemic. The Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, composed of several HBCUs, postponed fall 2020 sports to the spring and later suspended the spring 2021 football season after six of the MEAC’s football programs opted out of playing.
Several programs in the conference—Delaware State, Howard and South Carolina State—still played. The MEAC allowed individual schools to do what was best for their programs and athletes while following CDC guidelines and the NCAA’s health and safety protocols.
FAMU, along with its south Florida rival, Bethune-Cookman, were among the MEAC programs that did not play. Before fall 2020, the Southwestern Athletic Conference had announced that both BCU and FAMU would become full member institutions starting July 1.
Florida A&M had been part of the MEAC for 39 years, while BCU had made its mark in the league since 1979. Like FAMU and Bethune-Cookman, Hampton—a former MEAC member—left the league for the Big South Conference in 2018, while North Carolina A&T State—a program that has won three MEAC titles with one as a co-champion with SCSU in the last five years—also became an official member of the Big South on July 1.
With the 2021 season starting—which will begin with the COVID-19 delta variant still running rampant—things will be different for players like Bell and Wildcats linebacker Untareo Johnson and tight end Taron Mallard.
Johnson says he is just ready to play football.
“Playing football again is like Christmas,” he says. “We’ve been getting ready for Christmas for two years. I am so ready to see another color jersey on a different side of the ball.”
Conference realignment has been a trend in the college sports landscape for nearly the last 16 years as programs have switched conferences to gain more exposure, increase recruiting, expand their pathway in TV markets and earn better chances at top spots in the polls and the College Football Playoff rankings.
The idea of forming potential super conferences with the best of the best among the Power 5 could continue to reshape college sports. In recent months and weeks, the possibility of a 12-team expansion to the CFP has been discussed, the NCAA changed its rules to allow athletes to profit off of their name, image and likeness and what started as small rumblings during SEC media days quickly turned into Texas and Oklahoma submitting applications to join the SEC and being approved. While plenty of drama remains between the SEC and the Big 12, one thing remains constant: College football and college sports are changing.
FCS conferences and programs—particularly the SWAC—are joining the party for more exposure and in attempts to level the playing field, with much of this coming within the last year and starting with Jackson State’s hire of coach Deion Sanders.
Charles McClelland, the SWAC commissioner, says it is a good time to be in the league.
“The SWAC media brand has expanded,” McClelland told the ESPN broadcast during SWAC media days. “To bring in FAMU and BCU while celebrating 100 years is great, each week is going to be significant.
“Forty-four of the last 45 years, the SWAC has led FCS in attendance. This is going to be an unprecedented season. Others are trying to come and knock on the SWAC’s doors for our member institutions, but the one thing I want our fans to know is that the SWAC is united and strong. This is just the beginning, and the best is yet to come.”
McClelland also did not shy away about the league’s COVID-19 protocols, urging athletes and coaches to get vaccinated.
"It's quite simple; you must get vaccinated," McClelland said during media day. "If you are a vaccinated student-athlete or coach, all of the protocols have been taken off. I urge all student-athletes to get vaccinated because if you're not, you're not going to be able to finish the season based upon these protocols and there is somebody waiting to take your spot."
Per the league, players and coaches who are not vaccinated will deal with the same COVID-19 protocols from the spring season—tests for the virus three times per week and tests on game days. Individuals considered close contacts after contact tracing will face a mandatory 14-day quarantine. And teams that cancel games due to COVID-19-related roster issues will receive a forfeiture and a possible fine.
While both Florida-based schools now reside in the SWAC, they have one familiar MEAC opponent on their schedule in South Carolina State. The other games include two nonconference opponents and SWAC contests. But BCU and FAMU’s move to the conference created realignment among the league’s East and West divisions, something that will remain a storyline during the season.
Prior to their arrival, the SWAC East consisted of Jackson State, Alcorn State, Alabama A&M, Alabama State and Mississippi Valley State. With both Florida schools now in the East, Alcorn State was shifted to the SWAC West.
The Braves, who have won four of the last seven SWAC titles dating back to 2014 and are a program that has made three appearances in the five-year history of the Celebration Bowl, will play in the western division that features Southern, Grambling State, Prairie View A&M, Texas Southern and the Arkansas-Pine Bluff. In its conference championship battles within the last decade, Alcorn has played three times against Southern and three times against Grambling.
However, Alcorn—which was predicted to win the SWAC West this season during media day—was the only school in the conference that decided to opt out of the spring season due to COVID-19 after winning the conference title in 2019. Taurence Wilson, a senior defensive back for the Braves, says not playing was tough but he’s excited to start the fall season to clear the elephant in the room.
“When the decision was made, it did not sit right with me,” Wilson says. “After the coaches talked to us, everything made sense but with every choice comes a consequence. We had to give up a season for us to come back better.
“Some of the teams in the division now we have played during the regular season, so, it’s kind of normal for us. We’re ready to dominate and take over the West.”
Alcorn quarterback Felix Harper, who was thrust into the starting role unexpectedly in 2019 when star Noah Johnson went down with a season-ending injury, never thought he would be a starting QB at the college level.
Harper, a redshirt senior who was taught by former quarterbacks coach and West Virginia legend Pat White, says that season was a blessing in his preparation.
“It prepared [me] for whatever is to come and I tell the quarterbacks under me to prepare as if they are the starter now,” Harper says. “Pat made me grow as a player and for that, I’m thankful.
“I’m ready to build on what we’ve established as a program. We’re hungry and as Coach McNair has told us, somebody has something we want and that’s another SWAC title.”
Despite no players landing on the league’s preseason All-SWAC teams, with the Braves’ leadership and pedigree for championship-standard football returning to the gridiron, McNair’s quest to lead his team back to another conference title starts Saturday when Alcorn meets North Carolina Central in the 2021 MEAC/SWAC Challenge in Atlanta, a game that will feature ESPN’s College GameDay.
“This is a really big deal, and it is a great experience for our program as well as the members of this conference,” McNair says.
Alabama A&M—the reigning champ from the spring season—knows that all eyes will be on its program in 2021. Bulldogs quarterback Aqeel Glass, the league’s preseason Player of the Year, threw for 1,084 yards and 13 touchdowns in only five games that included the SWAC championship matchup against the Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
“We have a good football team coming back,” says Bulldogs coach Connell Maynor. “We have the best quarterback in the nation, the best receivers, the best offense and a much-improved defense so we have a chance to repeat.”
The Bulldogs played only five games due to multiple COVID-19 outbreaks with their opponents during the abbreviated season. But for Glass, a potential NFL prospect for the 2022 NFL draft and one of 35 players on the watchlist for the Walter Payton Award (the nation’s top FCS player), he is not settling for one SWAC title in a Bulldogs’ uniform.
“We’ve been trying to keep everybody focused and mentally hungry and not lackadaisical,” he says. “Our season was not a fluke, and our time is now.”
In between the realignment is a Jackson State team filled with high expectations. That outlook comes with the program’s history as home of four Pro Football Hall of Famers, as well as the fact that Sanders is coaching at JSU. The Tigers finished 4–3 in the spring, earning wins over NAIA opponent Edward Waters College, Grambling, Mississippi Valley State and a forfeiture by Alcorn to secure their first winning season since 2013.
However, by Sanders’s standard—with all of the media attention, cameras, exposure and facility upgrades he has brought to the program—it was only the beginning to what he believes will be a smart, tough, fast and disciplined team that will compete for SWAC championships.
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The Tigers will play eight of their 11 games this fall on ESPN’s family of networks. Sanders, who brought in the best football recruiting class among HBCUs, added several players to what was already a historic signing period for the program. However, during media days, JSU was predicted to finish third in the East behind Alabama A&M and Florida A&M with only two players—Aubrey Miller Jr. and Keonte Hampton—on the league’s preseason All-SWAC team.
“We’re the only team in the country where people expect in the first year to win,” Sanders said during media day.”
JSU will be put to the test on Labor Day weekend when the Tigers face FAMU in the Orange Blossom Classic at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami. Tigers quarterback Shedeur Sanders, who is Deion’s son and was not eligible to play in the spring season, says he is excited for the challenge of leading the offense this season.
“We’re going against an SEC defense in practice so it’s really a blessing to have that in preparation for teams we play this year,” Shedeur says. “When you have a dad who is a Hall of Famer, he pushes me every day because he expects greatness. Regardless of who is on the schedule or the division the team plays in, we have to be prepared each week and we will.”
The journey of 12 teams, two divisions and one champion competing over the next four months at a chance to play in the Celebration Bowl—the postseason game that pits the respective champions of the SWAC and MEAC conferences—begins Saturday.
With 43 of the league’s games to be featured on ESPN’s linear and digital platforms, the growth of the conference has arrived. And for players like the Wildcats’ Mallard, it is the moment he has been waiting for.
“The person people saw in 2019 is nothing compared to who I am now,” Mallard says. “I don’t know what I am going to do when I get out there but we’re already the underdog in our own conference. Nobody is talking about BCU, but that is what makes everything so exciting, the opportunity to see who is really the best HBCU in college football.”
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