At first glance, Tennessee State's 31-0 blowout win over Butler in the FCS Playoffs didn't seem all that impressive, especially since it came against a team from a league that doesn't give scholarships. The win looked even less impressive the following week when TSU lost by 41 points to Eastern Illnois.
But what made that TSU win so special is the fact that it marked the first time in the 21st century that an HBCU won an FCS football game. From 2000-2012, every HBCU team that played in an FCS playoff game lost. That tells you a lot about the state of HBCU football at the Divsion I level.
Now that Tennessee State has broken that trend, the pressure is on the other FCS teams to show that they can be a factor in the FCS race. Add in the fact that Winston-Salem State has won playoff games in three-straight years at the Divsion II level and it's clear that just making the playoffs isn't good enough any more.
The MEAC doesn't have a championship game, so it sends its best team to the playoffs ever year, and every year since 2000 it's best just hasn't been good enough.
Last year's Bethune-Cookman squad looked to have a good chance of breaking the dry spell, but its inconsistent offense was exposed several times last year, most notably in its 48-24 playoff loss to Coastal Carolina. BCU is expected to win the MEAC and get back to the playoffs for third-straight year, but two teams from the Carolinas are nipping at their heels.
South Carolina State will always be a factor in the MEAC as long as Buddy Pough is there. They lost key offensive players in QB Richard Cue and reciever Tyler McDonald, but have a furious defense led by pass rushers Andrew Carter and Alex Glover. Just up the road in Greensboro, Rod Broadway has returned North Carolina A&T to respectability in the MEAC. With running back Tarik Cohen and a stingy defense, they will be a factor in the MEAC race.
Over in the SWAC, the playoffs aren't in the equation, so it's all about beating your conference rivals on the field and in the stands. Southern enters the season as defending champions, but they'll have to replace the offensive production they've grown accustomed to with QB Dray Joseph and WR Lee Doss. They'll be pushed by an improving Prairie View team lead by versitale quarterback Jerry Lovelocke, who can hurt you with his arm or his legs. Over in the East, Jackson State faces an uphill battle to stay on top as both Alabama State and Alcorn State look to be legitimate contenders for the conference crowd.
Jackson State is one of several FCS schools that will start the season under new leadership. JSU will be coached by former Tiger great and NFL vet Hugh Jackson, replacing Rick Comegy who now coaches at Mississippi Valley State. Then there's Grambling, who has given the keys of the kingdom to Broderick Fobbs, a first-time head coach who finds himself walking in the footsteps of the legendary Eddie Robinson and attempting to rebuild the mess left over from the turbulent events of 2013.
Three MEAC coaches will make their debuts as Division I head coaches this year. Up in Durham, Jerry Mack is the new man at North Carolina Central. Like Fobbs, he inherits a team that dismissed its coach last fall and spent the year under an interim coach. Over in Baltimore, former Maryland assistant Lee Hull replaces Donald Hill-Eley, who never quite managed to get Morgan State over the hump.
The new coach with the biggest name is Hampton's Connell Maynor. Maynor went 45-6 in four seasons at Winston-Salem State, leading the team to playoff wins in three-straight seasons, including an appearance in the 2012 Division II National Championship Game. He will attempt to restore Hampton to MEAC glory and prove he can win playoff games at the FCS level.
Last, but certainly not least, there's Tennessee State. The Tigers play in the Ohio Valley Conference, which is much deeper than both the MEAC and the SWAC. They'll be led on offense by quarterback Mike German, one of the most talented quarterbacks in FCS football. He threw for 13 touchdowns and no interceptions during the regular season while sharing snaps with Ron Butler last season. He will be missing his favorite target, A.C. Leonard, as well as guard Kadeem Edwards, both of whom left for the pros last year. Then there is the Tiger defense, led by OVC Defensive Player of The Year Anthony Bass and defensive back Daniel Fitzpatrick, who picked off eight passes last season.
No one knows what the future holds this season, but the past has taught us that anything can and will happen in HBCU football. So strike up the band, pull out the grills and let the games begin.