MikeCheck: No two ways about it … Alcorn State is the best team in HBCU football this season

BIRMINGHAM – The significance of that notorious number isn’t lost on Fred McNair.

Recently seated at a media day table between two of the best players in FCS football this season, the Alcorn State coach was still struggling eight months later to make sense of that controversial call in the end zone of Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

It was the failed two-point conversion attempt last December that cost the Braves deeply. And it came late in that 24-22 Celebration Bowl loss to North Carolina A&T with the HBCU national title on the line.

Now, Alcorn enters the 2019 season Saturday against FBS member Southern Miss as the No. 2-ranked team among black colleges competing on the FCS level. The Braves are second in the polls, by the way, behind those defending national champion N.C. A&T Aggies.

Alcorn State Braves quarterback Noah Johnson #13

Preseason All-SWAC Quarterback Noah Johnson #13 of the Alcorn State Braves throws a pass during a game against the Southern University Jaguars. Photo provided by SWAC.


For Alcorn State’s chief Brave, those are simply too many circumstantial reminders of the number 2.

“All this time later, I still haven’t gotten a clear explanation of that call,” McNair told Grind City Media of Alcorn State’s bobbled catch in the end zone that would have tied the game and likely forced overtime, but instead was ruled incomplete. “I’ve waited months for them to explain that one to me. Guess I’m still waiting. At some point, you can’t harp on it. It’s in the past. It’s painful, but we’ve moved on.”

Look no further for why Alcorn State will move into this season with plenty of motivation and momentum. Forget what the preseason polls say, the Braves are the best team in black college football heading into this season. If they remain relatively healthy, Alcorn should be the best team coming out of it, too. The Braves simply have everything lined up almost perfectly.

It’s their turn, and their time. In a six-year span, Alcorn has made five trips to the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship game, won three league crowns and twice advanced to the Celebration Bowl. From the looks of it, McNair enters this season with the most explosive squad the Braves have had since his younger brother, the late Steve McNair, guided them to the playoffs in the early 1990s and contended for the Heisman Trophy.

The stars have aligned for Alcorn to make a return trip to Atlanta to face the 2019 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champions – and to finally capture the elusive HBCU national title, this time.

 

I’ve waited months for them to explain that one to me. At some point, you can’t harp on it. It’s in the past. It’s painful, but we’ve moved on.

Fred McNair

 

They have the frontline stars in SWAC preseason offensive player of the year in returning starting quarterback Noah Johnson. They have the SWAC’s preseason defensive player of the year in returning linebacker Solomon Muhammad. They have arguably the league’s best running back in 2018 SWAC newcomer of the year De’Shawn Waller. They have superior balance and depth, with 14 players garnering first- or second-team preseason All-SWAC honors from a squad that led the league in total offense and defense, among many other categories, during a 9-4 (6-1 in SWAC play) run in 2018.

But the most dominant characteristic that this team carries is absolutely zero sense of entitlement.

“Last year’s (Celebration Bowl) game just adds fuel to the fire, but really, we didn’t do nothing last year,” said Muhammad, who anchors a defense that ranked among the top 10 in all of FCS last season. “And for us, the SWAC championship wasn’t enough. It isn’t enough. Everything is about getting back to the spot we were last year, but getting over the top. You have to work every year to be a champion. It doesn’t carry over from one year to the next.”

Alcorn State Braves head coach Fred McNair

Alcorn State Braves head coach Fred McNair pleads his case to the referee on the sideline during the SWAC Championship football game between the Alcorn State Braves and the Grambling State Tigers on December 2, 2017 at NRG Stadium in Houston, TX. Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images.


As much as the sore feelings from the Celebration Bowl outcome still sting, McNair has prepared this year’s team to do a better job of taking care of matters within their control. With expectations so high, this team can’t afford the kind of homecoming letdown they had in a loss to Alabama State last season. They can’t afford to have key contributors like Muhammad lose focus off the field and get suspended for two games in the middle of the schedule, like he did last season.

The goal is for this season’s team to be as fearless as last year’s squad. The 2018 Braves didn’t back down despite being overmatched in last season’s opener at Georgia Tech, then hung 42 points on a second FBS foe on the road against New Mexico State later in the season. Above everything, the mission is for this season’s team to be more focused, poised and consistent, to put it all together.

“We know expectations are high, so we have to work our hardest every day,” said Johnson, who ranks in the top 10 of Alcorn’s illustrious history in passing touchdowns, passing yards and rushing touchdowns entering his senior season. “We know every game when somebody plays us, it’s like their Super Bowl. We get everybody’s best shot. So every day in summer workouts, we went to work 10 times harder. I feel like our (passing game) is going to shock the world this year. But preseason hype is what it is. It doesn’t mean much of anything right now. We’re going out there to grow each and every week.”

It’s definitely a schedule that requires the Braves to build as they go.

 

You have to work every year to be a champion. It doesn’t carry over from one year to the next.

Solomon Muhammad

 

Alcorn won’t be intimidated by opening against an FBS opponent in nearby Southern Miss, especially after playing at Atlantic Coast Conference member Georgia Tech last season. For as much as Saturday’s debut is an opportunity game, Alcorn’s true fate this season will be determined by a four-game stretch against SWAC West favorites Southern and Grambling, followed by SWAC East threats Alabama A&M and bitter rival Jackson State to close out the regular season.

Survive that, and the Braves will have wrapped up a sixth straight East division crown, a second consecutive SWAC championship and the shot to take this December’s Celebration Bowl out of the hands of the game’s referees.

“You’re only as good as your last game – and our last game wasn’t too good,” McNair reflected. “So we just have to kind of pick up where we left off (and) pick up the pieces. We left a lot out on the table as a team. We made some mistakes. It’s not so much about what the other team did; it’s what we didn’t do. So we feel good about ourselves coming into the season. We have a lot to prove, but a long way to go.”

Curry’s Big Splash at Howard

Although Steph Curry fell short of leading the injury-riddled Golden State Warriors to another title this past NBA season, that didn’t stop one of the greatest shooters in league history from making a championship contribution off the court this summer.

NBA superstar Stephen Curry at Howard University

NBA superstar Stephen Curry launches Howard University golf program, in Washington, DC. Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images.


In his latest project partnering with Howard University, Curry revealed plans earlier this month to sponsor the revival of the school’s men’s and women’s golf programs. Curry, an avid golfer when he’s not draining threes in NBA arenas, confirmed his role in the program’s rebirth during a recent visit to the Washington, D.C.-based campus. He was following up on a commitment made months earlier during a January trip to the school to debut a social justice documentary produced by Curry’s media company.

It was during that January appearance at Howard when Curry met senior student and club golfer Otis Ferguson IV during a Q&A after the documentary. As the two chatted about their passion for the sport, Ferguson mentioned how he wished he could have played on a NCAA golf team at Howard. The two exchanged contact information, and Curry quietly went to work on a plan in which the Bison will unveil their Division I teams for the 2020-21 golf seasons as part of Curry’s six-year launching sponsorship.

“The idea of recreating Howard’s golf team and turning it into a Division I program for men and women was born on that specific night,” Curry said recently of the January visit. “And now, we’re here.”

 

Curry attended Davidson College in North Carolina and had no previous connection with Howard during a career in which he’s won three NBA titles with Golden State and two league MVP awards. But he saw a need at an HBCU school and generously met it with his time, talent and resources. Curry’s gesture is symbolic and impactful at a time when social activism among many star athletes and celebrities rarely extend beyond shallow social media moments.

Curry’s assist will help provide opportunities for HBCU students in a sport that is critically under-represented when it comes to access, exposure and progress among athletes of color. Thanks in large part to Curry, Howard is back in the golf game now.

He ignited a far-reaching movement, not just a fleeting moment.

TSU’s Turmoil at QB

Tennessee State enters Saturday’s season opener against Mississippi Valley in a bit of a scramble at quarterback following the arrest and suspension of incumbent starter Demry Croft.

TSU coach Rod Reed announced last week that Croft was suspended from the team following his Aug. 19 arrest on multiple felony counts of rape and sexual battery. The arrest stemmed from a Dec. 1 incident that occurred on or near the Nashville campus, according to documents as reported by the Tennessean.com’s website.

Tennessee State Tigers quarterback Demry Croft #7

Tennessee State Tigers quarterback Demry Croft #7 drops back for a pass during Vanderbilt Commodores game against the Tennessee State Tigers at Vanderbilt Stadium, September 29, 2018 in Nashville, TN. Photo by Matthew Maxey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images.


“We have very high standards at here at Tennessee State, especially when it comes to women, and right now, Demry’s been accused of not holding up to those high standards,” Reed said from a prepared statement. “At this point, he’s been suspended indefinitely from the football team and all athletic activities as it relates to football and facilities.”

Croft, 22, entered summer camp as the projected starter at quarterback after playing four games last season before he suffered a season-ending injury. Croft transferred from Minnesota two years ago and was one of three different players to start at quarterback during the Tigers’ injury-riddled 2018 season. Reed told reporters that senior Cam Rosendahl would likely start Saturday’s opener.

HBCU Shoutout To …

This week’s Grind City Media HBCU shoutout goes to hip-hop legend Busta Rhymes, who recently shared a wonderful and proud image to his social media account as he helped move his 18-year-old son into his freshman dorm this month at Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University.

Busta’s son, Trillian, is the latest of the rapper’s four children to attend college. His only daughter, Mariah, currently attends the University of Tennessee, while two older sons have attended Pace University and Quinnipiac College – both in New York.

“Another young King of mine, off to begin the next chapter,” Busta shared via Instagram.

Had to feel like one of the best bars Busta ever delivered.