The only thing that stopped two-time defending champ Alcorn State from making it three consecutive Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) football titles in the 2021 spring season was the Braves opting-out of taking the field. ASU was the only SWAC program that didn’t play in the spring.
One door closes; Another door opens
The absence of Fred McNair’s squad opened the door for others to step in and that’s exactly what happened. Alabama A&M won the East Division title Alcorn State had claimed for six straight seasons. The Bulldogs went on to win the SWAC title game over West Division champ Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
Well, the Braves are back for the 2021 fall season but have no chance to reclaim their spot atop the East Division. That’s because with the addition of Florida-based former Mid Eastern Athletic Conference members Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M to the SWAC’s East Division roster, Alcorn State was moved to the West.
Alcorn State: Road Dogs
The sit out, ruled by the SWAC to be for other than coronavirus reasons, resulted in two forfeits in scheduled games last spring and has thrown a monkey wrench into the Braves’ fall 2021 schedule. Alcorn State will play eight of ten games on the road after opening the season in the SWAC/MEAC Challenge (vs. North Carolina Central) at a neutral site in Atlanta on August 28.
“The biggest thing is that when you’ve got a car, you want make sure it’s running right,” McNair explained at Tuesday’s SWAC Football Media Day in Birmingham. “You want the oil changed, make sure all the (spark) plugs are running. So what we did, is we kind of got ourselves back in shape. Sitting out the 2020 season was no doubt one of the best decisions I could make concerning these young men with their health and being able to play.
“As far as being in shape and having people in place to get these guys in shape and treat these guys with the right physical attributes, at that time we didn’t have that. So, that was one of the reasons we decided to take 2020 (spring 2021) off so we could get people in place to do the job they’re supposed to do.”
There’s a lot to read between the lines of that answer.
New division, no problem
It’s not clear however from the preseason predictions voted on by the SWAC’s head coaches and sports information directors what to make of the Braves’ prospects for the upcoming season. While Alcorn State was voted as the favorites to win the SWAC West title in their first year in the division, not a single player was voted to the first or second preseason all-SWAC teams.
EDITOR’S NOTE: SWAC Commissioner Dr. Charles McClelland explained during Media Day that conference policy dictates that returning players who were all-SWAC in the previous season automatically receive preseason all-conference designation. Because Florida A&M, Bethune-Cookman and Alcorn State did not play in the fall 2020 or spring 2021, none of their players were eligible for preseason all-SWAC honors.
It’s likely a sign of the respect the other coaches and SIDs in the league have for the job McNair has done in his four seasons at the helm. During his time leading the Braves, they have won four straight East titles and back-to-back league championships in 2018 and 2019.
Also hard to figure is this. This spring’s West Division champ, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, led all SWAC teams with 11 players on the preseason all-conference teams but was picked to finish fifth in the six-team division. Southern, whom UAPB beat last season, was picked to finish second in the West with ten preseason selections. Grambling, who finished 0-4 last season, was voted third, ahead of both UAPB and Prairie View A&M who both beat the G-Men last year.
Alcorn State snubs equal motivation
Senior quarterback Felix Harper, the league’s offensive player of the year the last time the league played a full season (in 2019), and grad cornerback Taurence Wilson. who finished with 43 tackles and four interceptions in 2019, accompanied McNair to Tuesday’s Media Day.
Harper passed for nearly 3,000 yards with 33 TDs and just nine interceptions in winning the 2019 award and leading the Braves to the league title and Celebration Bowl berth that goes with it. That Alcorn State team was also loaded with seniors at key positions that have since departed.
“It wasn’t really a problem,” Harper said of sitting out in the spring. “It didn’t affect me or the team. It kind of slowed everything down but we just kept developing, working out in the spring. That’s the regular schedule because you don’t really play during the spring. Football always is played in the fall. We’ll be fine. At the end of the day, we’re just going to come back and try to win the SWAC championship.”
In Harper’s absence, the quarterbacks from the two division winners from the spring – Alabama A&M’s Aqeel Glass and UAPB’s Skyler Perry – were first and second team choices. Glass was the spring season’s offensive player of the year and was tabbed as the preseason offensive POY.
Alcorn State: Hard to ignore
Still, it’s hard to ignore players like Harper, Wilson and Braves’ running back Niko Duffey, who rushed for 838 yards and six TDs in 2019 as a freshman and would have been the league’s returning rushing leader had he played last season. Duffey returns for his sophomore season.
The move to the West also does not faze McNair or the players.
“I don’t think it will be a challenge,” said McNair. “We’ve played Prairie View, we’ve played Grambling, we’ve played Southern anyway while we were in the East. I didn’t have any issue with that. It’s just the nature of football. You just show up every Saturday with a game plan ready to play.”
As far as reclaiming that SWAC title, McNair and the players said they’re coming to get what’s theirs.
“I told these guys, somebody’s going to have something that belongs to us,” McNair said.
“We let them borrow it for a little while,” said Wilson.