MEMPHIS – We’re exactly eight weeks into the HBCU football schedule and two months away from the Celebration Bowl, so it’s a perfect time to gauge which players and teams are on pace for something special.
There’s still plenty of work to get done. But as the homecoming season winds down let’s rev up for the stretch run with my Midseason HBCU Football Recognitions.
Offensive Player of the Year
Jah-Maine Martin, RB, North Carolina A&T: When it comes to the running back position, the Aggies are HBCU’s football version of the Alabama Crimson Tide. No matter who departs, there’s always another superstar ready to emerge. Following in the footsteps of NFL standout Tarik Cohen and Marquell Cartwright, Martin is blazing a N.C. A&T trail all his own for one of the nation’s top rushing attacks. Martin has been unstoppable this season while on pace to set several single-season rushing marks. He’s second in all of FCS in rushing yards (742), touchdowns (11) and rushing average (148.4) as the Aggies’ pursue a third straight HBCU title.
Defensive Player of the Year
BJ Davis, LB, South Carolina State: The redshirt freshman looks like the next stud in a long pipeline of dominant defenders for the Bulldogs. A weird schedule this season has already given the Bulldogs two bye weeks, so the sample size totals are small. But Davis ranks among FCS’s leaders in interceptions per game and tackles for loss from his hybrid linebacker/safety spot. It’s basically the same role that allowed Darius Leonard to develop at S.C. State into a player who was the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year and a first-team All-Pro last season. Davis already has FCS national player of the week and MEAC rookie of the week honors in his stash.
Specialist Player of the Year
Chris Rowland, KR/WR, Tennessee State: Among the bright spots in an otherwise bleak season for Tennessee State has been the remarkable play of their do-it-all specialist. It’s unfortunate Rowland hasn’t seen much winning from his efforts, but he’ll soon be cashing NFL paychecks from playing on Sundays. Rowland caught a school-record 14 passes last week and amassed at least 200 all-purpose yards for the fifth time this season. He leads all of FCS in all-purpose yards (207.9 per game) and receiving yards (1,021) and he is second in receptions (10 per game). Rowland averages 32.9 yards on kickoff returns – when teams even dare kick it his way.
Coach of the Year
Damon Wilson, 11th season at Bowie State: Having interned this summer with the New York Jets as part of the Bill Walsh NFL Minority Coaching Fellowship program, Wilson is certainly a coach on the rise. Instead of going through what should be a rebuilding season after losing CIAA record-setting QB Amir Hall to graduation, Wilson instead reloaded with defense and balance to push defending league champion Bowie State to a 6-0 start as the nation’s lone unbeaten HBCU football team. The Bulldogs rank No. 16 in this week’s AFCA Division II national poll. After more than a decade at Bowie, Wilson (70-42) is ripe for a Division I FCS program to lure him away.
Coach on Hot Seat
Rod Reed, 10th season at Tennessee State: Reed had to wait until the end of last year to learn he was receiving an extension that would carry him through the 2019 season. And now riding a demoralizing six-game losing streak into homecoming week, the Tigers are desperate to avoid a loss to much-improved Austin Peay that would mark the longest skid in program history. Off-the-field controversy and distractions have also marred the season for TSU, and it might be tough to justify bringing back even a beloved figure like Reed. At 1-6 this season and 54-53 overall entering Saturday, Reed is already assured of his fourth non-winning season in six years.
Arkansas-Pine Bluff: No one – absolutely no one! – expected this from the Golden Lions. But here they are, at 5-2 and ranked weekly in the top 10 of Boxtorow’s HBCU national poll after being picked at SWAC Media Day to finish last in the conference. Credit second-year coach Cedric Thomas and a staff that added several key transfers to a core of promising young players who took major lumps last season as freshmen. It’s safe to say the Golden Lions started from the bottom and now they’re here, off to their best start since 2012. But after some early road upsets at Tennessee State and Alabama A&M, can UAPB remain a factor over the stretch run?
Howard University: No team has hit rock-bottom as resoundingly this season as the Bison have under first-year coach Ron Prince. This was a team that returned MEAC preseason Offensive Player of the Year in quarterback Caylin Newton and one of the top receiving corps in the league. A month into the season, the bottom fell out amid some crucial injuries and a handful of players bolting the program. Atop that list of departures was Newton, who announced after leading Howard to its lone win two weeks ago that he entered the transfer portal and was no longer with the team. Five of the Bison’s six losses have been by 21 or more points this season.
Moment of the Season
ESPN Shoutout to Alcorn State: After passing for five touchdowns in last week’s win over Savannah State, Alcorn State quarterback Felix Harper got a shoutout from ESPN’s College GameDay Final national studio show. Harper has passed for 16 touchdowns without an interception, and is 4-0 since replacing Noah Johnson as the starter. Johnson, who hasn’t played since suffering a shoulder injury in the Sept. 14 loss at McNeese State, was the SWAC’s preseason Offensive Player of the Year after guiding the Braves to a SWAC championship. The ESPN studio crew gave Alcorn State a “helmet sticker” to acknowledge Harper’s brilliant play.
Stretch run Best Game
Oct. 26 – Southern at Alcorn State: The Jaguars visit the Braves in a regular-season rematch of last year’s SWAC championship game. The Braves won that shootout 37-28 in their home stadium to capture their third conference title in the past five years. With both the East and West divisions still largely up for grabs, this showdown on the final weekend of October will have all sorts of championship race implications. Because the rival MEAC doesn’t have a conference championship game, Bethune-Cookman’s Nov. 16 visit to Greensboro to face North Carolina A&T also looms large and may determine who reps the MEAC in the Celebration Bowl.
Celebration Bowl Prediction
Alcorn State vs North Carolina A&T: Yep, look for both teams to return to Atlanta for the Dec. 21 rematch of last year’s Celebration Bowl matchup. Alcorn State is still fuming from what it believes was a blown call on a controversial two-point conversion that cost the Braves a chance to tie the game late. The Aggies held on for the 24-22 win and solidified one of the most successful five-year runs in NCAA football history, with a third HBCU national title and a fourth MEAC championship. FAMU would be the biggest threat to N.C. A&T, but is ineligible for the postseason. In the SWAC, both Southern and Arkansas-Pine Bluff could pose danger to Alcorn.