Alabama A&M

HBCU Gameday Poll 2023: Three unranked teams to watch

Last year the team we left off our top 10 won the Celebration Bowl. Here are three potential candidates outside of this year’s list.

A year later, the omission of North Carolina Central from the inaugural HBCU Gameday Staff Preseason Poll still stings a little. We left NCCU off the 2022 preseason list after it pushed defending Celebration Bowl champion South Carolina State University to the limit the previous fall.

Head coach Trei Oliver let it be known in July that the team wasn’t thrilled to be left off the list, and then his team proceeded to go all the way — knocking off Jackson State in the Celebration Bowl.

Well, our 2023 HBCU Gameday Staff Preseason Poll is out and North Carolina Central is on it. Here are three teams that aren’t on the list that could wind up coming for that no. 1 spot in 2023. 

Alabama A&M

It seems oh so long ago when Connell Maynor and Aqueel Glass trotted off the field at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Coliseum after the 2021 spring title. By the time Jackson State demolished it on its homecoming that fall, it was time to turn the page and look toward the future. That future included bringing in a small army of FBS transfers as it hoped to keep up in the arms race with Jackson State and Florida A&M.

Fall 2022 was not the future AAMU envisioned as it went just 4-7. The passing game, a hallmark for Maynor and his staff, was atrocious. The defense was slightly better than it had been previously, but still in the bottom third of the SWAC.

The good news for AAMU is it has a fairly favorable schedule, including two Division IIs and hosting Florida A&M at home as well as not having to travel to Jackson. It still faces an uphill battle with glaring holes, but it would make a heck of a redemption story.

Alcorn State 

Before Jackson State re-emerged and Florida A&M arrived, the SWAC East belonged to Alcorn State. From 2014 through 2019, Alcorn State won every SWAC East title and four of six SWAC titles — the first two under Hopson and the last two under Fred McNair. Then came 2020 and Covid. Then came the missed spring 2021 season. Then came a move to the SWAC West prior to the fall 2021 season.

Since then Alcorn State has gone 11-11, including a 5-6 record in 2022. 

But a closer look at that record reveals a team that was four points away from an upset of no. 10 Stephen F. Austin as well as SWAC West champion Southern University. It also had eventual SWAC champion Jackson State backed into a corner until some late-game heroics from Shedeur Sanders and Travis Hunter took them over. Both of those players are now in Colorado, however.

What Alcorn State does have is one of the top running backs in the FCS in Jarveon Howard. The Syracuse transfer ran for 1,275 yards and 12 touchdowns, running for better than 5.1 yards per rush. It also has a defense that allowed 25 points per game, fifth best in the SWAC.

The passing game took a step back last season as it attempted to move from Felix Harper to Aaron Allen, who threw for just eight touchdowns compared to seven interceptions. It will have to be better than that if Alcorn State wants to make its way back to the SWAC title game and Celebration Bowl. But we’ve learned in the past not to underestimate ASU and Fred McNair.

Andrew Body, HBCU Gameday

Texas Southern

Out of the teams mentioned here, Texas Southern was the closest to getting to the Celebration Bowl — or at least the SWAC Championship Game. Tx Southern went 5-6 last season, but controlled its own destiny heading into the final week of the season. It ultimately fell short with a four-point loss to Alabama A&M as quarterback Andrew Body went down.

Texas Southern’s offense starts and ends with Body, who is a threat with his legs as well as his arm. As long as he stays healthy, Texas Southern should contend for the SWAC West title. 

HBCU Gameday Poll 2023: Three unranked teams to watch
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