The dominating theme that underscored the Southwestern Athletic Conference last season was the unparalleled impact of Deion Sanders.
The belief in the Jackson State coach to elevate the Tigers, and HBCU programs overall, became more than a popular catchphrase. Sanders’s words and actions provided a new perception to the conference’s deep-rooted legacy. “He [Sanders] has put an entirely different lens on the league,” league commissioner Charles McClelland told Sports Illustrated in December.
McClelland, who is in his fifth year leading the conference, said then that Sanders's impact would provide an “upward trajectory” for the 12-member league. Eight months later, as the ‘22 college football season begins, “I didn’t have a crystal ball but the elevation has been overwhelming,” he says.
With the support of nearly a dozen corporate sponsors, a rejuvenated spirit of fan popularity, high-level recruiting and the new wave of name, image and likeness opportunities to level the playing field for student athletes, the SWAC’s stock continues to rise. “We deserve this type of exposure,” Florida A&M wide receiver Xavier Smith says.
The SWAC was, in a way, ahead of the seismic shifts that have recently unraveled the college football terrain. Before the 2020 season, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the SWAC acquired Bethune-Cookman and FAMU, two former stalwarts of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, to become full members in the league starting July 1, 2021. While the conference didn’t necessarily need to add the two historic programs, it was a move by the league to remain at the “forefront” of the sweeping realignment conversation.
A year later, the most lucrative sport in college sports brought with it another blast of summer escapades. USC and UCLA decided to ditch their century-long allegiance to the Pac-12 in a blockbuster move to the Big Ten in ’24. The league later announced its massive $7-plus billion multi-network TV rights deal while the ACC and Big 12 find themselves redefining the future of their leagues. Meanwhile, the SWAC remains aligned at 12 teams, and Jackson State finds itself as the overwhelming preseason favorite to win the conference.
But, four programs—Alabama State, Grambling, Prairie View and Southern—hired new coaches over the past nine months with three carrying NFL notoriety. Can JSU post another school record 11-win season and redeem itself in the coveted Celebration Bowl? A groundbreaking offseason of recruiting, and the addition of first-class hires to Sanders’s coaching staff would suggest so.
McClelland, who has seen his fair share of celebratory moments, is eager to see where the conference goes next. More FCS playoff bids? Playing at the FBS level? Conference expansion? “I watched Jerry Rice, Willie Totten, W.C. Gorden, Marino Casem, Pete Richardson, Eddie Robinson and Archie Cooley,” McClelland says. “Those were the glory days. … We’re re-writing history.”
By 2030, the league anticipates surpassing at least two FBS conferences. Like last season, ESPN is slated to air 29 games on its platforms, while the SWAC’s new partnership with HBCU Go allocates cable, linear, streaming broadcasts, VOD and pay-per-view rights to showcase SWAC football and HBCU sports.
With Week 0 starting Saturday, McClelland hopes the Hornets secure a victory in the MEAC/SWAC clash. It would be a strong way to usher in the new season with what he hopes will be the SWAC champion hoisting the Celebration Bowl trophy in December.
“I’ve yet to win one since I became commissioner,” he laughs. But, more importantly, his vision eight months ago is still being written and he’s down for the ride. “Who would have thought with all of the changing of schools and conferences that the SWAC would be stable. What a time to be commissioner in this conference.”
Back on Dec. 15, less than two weeks after Jackson State defeated Prairie View to earn its first SWAC title championship since ’07, Sanders notched a feat that was far greater than the program’s historic season. Travis Hunter, the No. 1 player in the SI99 rankings, shocked many by flipping his commitment from Florida State to Jackson State. It also hinted that Sanders wasn’t content with JSU’s level of dominance, especially after JSU’s disappointing 31-10 loss against the MEAC’s South Carolina State in the Celebration Bowl.
“I feel like we forgot we had the championship game in Atlanta,” Sanders said in a SportsCenter segment Thursday. “They out-physicaled us, out threw us, more discipline … I know the problems and I got the solutions. I’ve already called several coaches around the country to see what they do because I am wise enough to glean from other men.”
Following the defeat, Sanders landed Kevin Coleman, the top-ranked slot receiver in the ’22 class, among other elite players to secure the 59th-best recruiting class this year and highest by an FCS program since ESPN rankings began in ’07. He hired several dynamic pieces to his coaching staff, including former Big Ten head coach Tim Brewster as his special assistant, offensive mastermind Brett Bartolone as offensive coordinator, former Vikings coach Mike Zimmer as an analyst, and Mo Sims, Georgia’s former strength and conditioning coach.
Sanders has not only elevated his program with strong recruiting, but he has also leveraged partnerships with brands like Aflac, Walmart and Proctor & Gamble. He also offered his assistance to help JSU’s biggest rival, Alcorn, secure full-time athletic trainers in September ’21 and vowed to help MVSU improve its facilities. Those things help pave the way for athletes, from strong performances in postseason bowl games, participation in the NFL Combine and elevating the stock of the HBCU Combine and HBCU Legacy Bowl.
Shedeur Sanders, Deion’s son and the ’21 FCS Jerry Rice Award winner, believes the offseason has put everything in perspective. JSU did not have an offseason in ’21 as the SWAC participated in an unprecedented spring season due to COVID-19 uptick and went straight into the fall ‘21 campaign. But Shedeur Sanders believes the team is ready. “Bartolone is going to take me to the next level,” he said during the league's media day. “We know now the grind it takes every day to be great.”
Jackson State returns five preseason All-SWAC players. Malachi Wideman and Trevonte Rucker fit into an immensely talented wide receiver corps in an offensive unit that finished fourth in scoring offense. Defensively, JSU’s hard-hitting linebackers, Aubrey Miller and Nyles Gaddy, defensive lineman Devonta Davis and safeties Cam’Ron Silmon-Craig and John Huggins, anchor a relentless unit that finished atop the SWAC and second in the FCS in total defense in ‘21.
Like JSU, Prairie View senior quarterback Trazonn Connley wants another chance at a SWAC title. Connley, who replaces Panthers quarterback Jawon Pass, is one of 55 returners on a team that includes eight offensive and defensive starters. New coach Bubba McDowell, a former defensive standout for the NFL’s Houston Oilers in the late ‘80s to mid-90s, was elevated in the offseason after serving as the program's defensive assistant for more than a decade. With McDowell, Connley believes the Panthers are primed to get over the hump. “We got caught in the [SWAC title game] atmosphere last year,” he says. “We felt that disappointment. We’re ready to tackle any situation.”
Five hours south in Louisiana, Grambling coach Hue Jackson takes over with more than three decades of coaching experience from the college to NFL ranks, and after spending a year under Tennessee State’s Eddie George as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Jackson caught backlash for his controversial hire of former Baylor head coach Art Briles as offensive coordinator two months after he was hired. While the hire did not work out, Jackson has a big task in restoring one of college football’s most esteemed programs.
Grambling returns nine starters on offense and 21 on defense, including defensive lineman Sundiata Anderson, who was recently named to the Reese’s Senior Bowl watch list. Under Jackson’s leadership, the program also brought in 50 newcomers that included 13 transfers from Division I programs. As the team prepares to be “road warriors'' with its first four games this season, GSU’s quarterback position remains a question mark. Jackson will choose from one of his five transfers—Kajiya Hollawayne (UCLA), Chance Amie (Syracuse), Amani Gilmore (North Texas) and Julian Calvez and Quaterius Hawkins from Jones College.
In Montgomery, Alabama State kicks off its season with a matchup against Howard in the 2022 MEAC/SWAC Challenge in Atlanta. First-year coach Eddie Robinson Jr. (no relation to the late Grambling legend Eddie Robinson) brings 11 years of NFL experience. In his first assignment, Robinson will be challenged with facing the Bison in a marquee Week 0 matchup in a series that has favored the MEAC. However, with former Auburn quarterback Dematrius Davis winning the starting job ahead of Saturday’s game and a strong defense anchored by defensive back Irshaad Davis, Robinson seeks to lead the program to its first SWAC title since ’04.
Eric Dooley never thought he would be a head coach. But the former PV coach took his talents back to Southern in Baton Rouge, La., where he spent 14 years as a Jaguars assistant from ’97 to ’10. While known for his impeccable outfit ensembles, he demands every ounce of energy and grit from his players. Dooley’s return to SU has sparked overwhelming excitement in the Jaguars fan base as the program has seen an uptick in ticket sales. “It’s definitely attributable to coach Dooley,” Jaguars athletic director Roman Banks recently told The Baton Rouge Advocate.
While Southern has struggled in the past with its passing game, Dooley still plans to establish his upbeat yet balanced attack on offense. “We’re going to play basketball on the football field,” he said. Defensive end Jordan Lewis, who earned the ’20 Buck Buchanan Award (FCS Most Outstanding Defensive Player), returns, while former PV defensive tackle Jason Dumas is expected to be an “instant impact guy” to bolster a program projected to win the SWAC West.
The Rattlers sit behind JSU as the favorites to win the SWAC East crown. FAMU’s one-point loss (7-6) against the Tigers in the ’21 Orange Blossom Classic put JSU playing in the title game. Despite earning nine wins and a trip to the FCS Playoffs against Southeastern Louisiana last season, the program has “unfinished business.” “That’s why Xavier Smith came back,” coach Willie Simmons said.
Simmons, an offensive mastermind, has weapons on both sides of the ball. Receivers Smith, David Manigo and Jah’Marae Sheread return, while Vanderbilt graduate transfer quarterback Jeremy Moussa recently earned the starting job over ’21 starter Rasean McKay. Defensively, the Rattlers are loaded in a system that features defensive back BJ Bohler, Javan Morgan and Isaiah Land, the reigning Buck Buchanan Award winner and ’22 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year. However, with reports of 20 players being ineligible because of academic or transfer issues ahead of Saturday’s Week 0 matchup against North Carolina, FAMU hopes to address the issue prior to its Labor Day showdown against JSU in the OBC.
More from the conference
While some might be overlooking Alabama A&M, Bethune Cookman and Mississippi Valley in the SWAC East, they, too, have lofty goals of making a statement. The Bulldogs, who lost record-setting quarterback Aqeel Glass, still feature two dynamic All-SWAC players in running back Gary Quarrels and wide receiver Abdul-Fatai Ibrahim. AAMU coach Connell Maynor also improved the team’s defense in the transfer portal during the offseason.
Under seventh-year coach Terry Sims, the Wildcats seek to elevate their season behind the play of tight end Kemari Averett and defensive back Omari Hill-Robinson. The Delta Devils, under fifth-year coach Vincent Dancy, begin this season with Caleb Johnson, the conference’s leading rusher last season. With a “scrappy, underdog mentality,” the Delta Devils have plans to shake things up in ’22. “When I took this job, we were everybody’s homecoming,” Dancy said. “Now, opponents are starting to understand when you play MVSU, you’ve got to bring your A game.”
Alcorn State prepares for its second season in the SWAC West after it moved to the other side of the league with the addition of FAMU and BC last fall. Since ’14, the Braves have won four of the past eight SWAC titles. Even with the loss of star quarterback Felix Harper, playing in the West and the growth of elite-level talent in the conference, the Braves know elevating the program is a must this season. “Last year left a bitter taste in our mouths, leaving points on the field,” says Braves defensive back Keyron Kinsler. Offensively, Alcorn returns seven starters that includes running back Niko Duffey and wide receiver CJ Bolar, who McNair considers a “steal” from Vanderbilt. Defensively, the program returns four, with linebacker Claudin Cherelus as the lone preseason all-conference selection on that side of the ball.
Rounding up the west frontier is one of the league’s most explosive passing attacks at Texas Southern and an Arkansas Pine Bluff program seeking to return to its spring ’21 mark when it appeared in the SWAC title game. TSU quarterback Andrew Body, who was named to Dave Campbell’s Texas Football Lone Star 50 list (50 most important college football players in Texas), finished fourth all-time in single-season passing a year ago with 2,017 yards. However, TSU finished 3-8 last season, with the lack of wins stemming from injuries, inexperience, and a limited defense.
TSU coach Clarence McKinney believes things will be different. “We have quality depth … we will be in the mix for competing for a championship,” he said. The Golden Lions return starting quarterback Skyler Perry and offensive lineman Mark Evans, one of two SWAC players on the FCS Prospects to Watch list leading into the ’23 NFL draft. UAPB finished last in the division last fall.