By Chuck Burton
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA – Most years at college football media days, past performance is almost always indicative of the results of the preseason polls.
So you might be forgiven if Alabama A&M linebacker Vernon Marshall was surprised when his Bulldogs, who made it all the way to the SWAC championship game last year, was picked to finish third in the Eastern Division behind Jackson State and Alabama State.
"I totally disagree with that," Marshall told Reggie Benson of the Huntsville Times. "We're going to use that as extra motivation."
An extra-motivated Alabama A&M team is probably not what the rest of the SWAC would like to see, especially considering that the Bulldogs went 8-3 in the regular season last year.
"We're a little disappointed ," head coach Anthony Jones said, whose Bulldogs return 18 starters from last year's division-winning squad. "Alabama State has a good football team. They are very similar to where we are. They've got a returning quarterback, a great running back, receivers coming back along with a number of guys on defense. We beat them last year by one point. This year will be no exception.
The reason Alabama State got the nod? Hopefully not because Reggie Barlow's daughter and her "seven-year-old friend", as he admitted at SWAC media day, filled out his ballot.
It's much more likely the Hornets are favored because former Georgia tailback Isaiah Crowe, a former five-star prep prospect, elected to transfer to the Hornets for a second chance at football.
Crowe was dismissed by Georgia after being arrested on felony weapons charges.
"He's a young man that was 18 and he was thrust into the limelight," Barlow told the Montgomery Advertiser. "Sometimes that stuff can overtake you. There haven't been any promises, just basically talks about we're going to hold him accountable. That's what they want from us, his mom and his dad. We're going to do that. His teammates have embraced him, and we look forward to him just being a team member."
Crowell, who had four 100-yard games against SEC competiton as a freshman last year for Georgia, was the talk of media day.
But Jackson State head coach Rick Comegy was thrilled to simply talk about the opportunity in front of his Tigers that wasn't there last year — a SWAC championship.
The Tigers were unable to compete for the championship last year since they didn't meet the APR threshold score.
With their eligibility for the upcoming season established this past April, Comegy sees an energy level there, according to the Clarion Ledger, that is "extremely high".
"I think the guys that we have are enough to win football games," he said, acknowledging that he hadn't found his opening day starter at quarterback yet. "They may not (have) the impact or glamour as [last year's] quarterback Casey Therriault, but we have enough at quarterback to win championships."
Meanwhile in SWAC West, Grambling coach Doug Williams, whose second go-around directing the Tigers led to the championship last year, talked about continuing to build on last years' success even though there are only four seniors in the starting lineup from last year's team.
“I’m not concerned about youth, because nine times out of 10, if you give someone an opportunity, they’re going to rise to it,” Williams told the Shreveport Times. “We have a veteran offensive line, but we’re very young on the defensive front. The good part is, that while we lost all four defensive linemen, every year, someone tends to stand up. Hopefully, these guys will stand up and play well.”
They may get a challenge from Prairie View A&M, who was picked to finish second behind Grambling. Second-year head coach Heishma Northern said that his focus this offseason was strength and conditioning – which may have resulted in the Panthers losing four of five to finish the 2011 season.
"When you come to media day, it's time to get everything going," Heishma Northern told KHOU TV. "I think our guys are excited, we have about 70 guys on campus right now working out with our strength and conditioning program, getting up at 5:30 AM, getting after it pretty hot and heavy, and finishing around 8 a.m. They're ready to get the season started."
Five Players To Watch in 2012
1. RB Dawrence Roberts, Grambling: Only a junior, Roberts averaged over 100 yards a game last year in Williams return to a power offense, and has the potential to be even better this year behind an "O" line returning three startes.
2. QB Gregory Jenkins, Alabama State: With the power running of Crowell in the Hornet backfield, Jenkins, who is already a solid quarterback with a 131.05 effeciency rating last year, stands to benefit greatly.
3. DE Joseph LeBeau, Jackson State: Last season, LeBeau tied the Jackson State single-season record for sacks, along with an eye-popping 22 1/2 tackles for a loss. As one of nine returning started on the TIger defense, he'll be expected to be even better this year as well.
4. S KeJuan Riley, Alabama State: With a bunch of his defensive teammates being declared academically ineligible, Riley – who nabbed nine interceptions last year – will be asked to do even more to carry the Hornet defense, all while being the guy who the opposing quarterback will be avoiding all game. It won't be easy.
5. WR Spencer Nelson, Prairie View: All this 5'8 speedster from Jonesboro, Georgia does is get open – a lot. With 53 receptions, 659 yards and 5 touchdowns last year, he will need to continue to be a dangerous weapon for the Panthers on offense if they hope to unseat Grambling.
My Sleeper Player to Watch: LB Vernon Marshall, Alabama A&M. There are other linebackers that get more press in the SWAC, but the Birmingham, AL. native really came on at the end of 2011 to get 75 tackles, 1 fumble recovery, and 1 interception by season's end. If the Bulldogs head back to the SWAC Championship game this year, you can bet it's going to be at least partially due to his play on the A&M defense.
Predicted Order of Finish
1. Jackson State: It's scary to think that last season's Tigers are now extra-motivated to do better.
2. Alabama A&M: The preseason diss will serve them well, but it won't get them a victory in Jackson on November 11th.
3. Alabama State: The Hornets score a lot of points, but Riley can't do it all alone on defense.
4. Alcorn State: The Braves' opportunistic defense will make things interesting, but they're definitely a step behind the heavy hitters.
5. Mississippi Valley State: They could use a Jerry Rice – or three – to awaken their ineffective offense from last year.
1. Grambling: The Tigers are riding a huge winning streak from last year, and Roberts and D.J. Williams, their starting quarterback, are both underclassmen. What's not to like about a repeat?
2. Prairie View A&M: If there is a team that could surprise the Tigers, it's Priarie View, who have taken two of the last three State Fair Classics from Grambling. If they make it three of four on October 6th, the West could be very interesting.
3. Arkansas-Pine Bluff: Losing the 1-2 punch of Adrian Moore and Stephen Jones means they're a step behind both the Panthers and Tigers.
4. Texas Southern: Under new coach Darnell Asbury, coming in from Shaw, it will be a rebuilding year, though you've got to believe that he could surprise one of the big boys,
5. Southern: It's hard to imagine the Jaguars, going thorough as tough a time as they've ever seen on the field, beating Grambling in the Bayou Classic.