The first games of the college football season were played last week and HBCU teams from both the MEAC and the SWAC gave a strong and demonstrative account of themselves against heavily favored competition.
North Carolina A&T, fresh off a 12-0 season made a big road trip into the deep south to Montgomery, Ala. to do battle with 6th ranked four time OVC Champion and perennial FCS powerhouse Jacksonville State in ESPN’s annual FCS Kickoff Classic.
Jacksonville State rolled up over 400 yards in total offense, with 323 of it coming through the air mostly in the second half, but the A&T defense countered those stats with even more vital barometer by forcing four timely turnovers and one huge special teams play to pull the 20-17 upset before 13,500 fans. That A&T’s victory snapped JSU’s 41-game regular season win streak against non-FBS opponents dating all the way back to 2013.
Prairie View of the SWAC narrowly missed making it 2 for 2 on the night as they fell victim to a field goal on the very last play of the game against Conference USA and FBS foe Rice 31-28.
So now we turn to the first full weekend of college football and all of the MEAC will be in full action. North Carolina A&T will try to extend its good fortune as they make the 3-hour ride to Greenville to take on East Carolina in the first meeting between these two schools on the football field. The Howard Bison are looking to get out to a big start in 2018 as they will travel up to FBS Ohio University (MAC) in Athens, OH.
New head coach Willie Simmons will be making his MEAC debut as his Florida A&M Rattlers will entertain D-II Fort Valley State (SIAC) while S.C. State will venture down to Statesboro, GA to do battle with FBS Georgia Southern.
Ron Milstead enters his first game as head coach and will have his work cut out for as his Delaware State squad will face FBS Buffalo on the road. Norfolk State will try to avenge last year’s shocking loss to D-II Virginia State (CIAA) as the Trojans come to the Tidewater.
A big head-to-head FCS non-conference match-up will take place in Nashville, TN as the Bethune Cookman Wildcats will tangle with the Tennessee State Tigers (OVC). It will be the battle for Baltimore as Morgan State and Towson State renew their intercity rivalry at Hughes Stadium on the Morgan State campus.
The big TV game this week will be on Sunday in Atlanta with the MEAC/SWAC Challenge pitting N. C. Central against Prairie View at noon on ESPN.
The East Carolina Pirates will be opening their season against North Carolina A&T and Coach Scottie Montgomery is entering his third season and is anticipating a much better outcome than he’s experienced the last two seasons at the helm with back-to-back 3-9 seasons.
One reason for optimism is the wealth of riches at the receiver positions lead by 1,000 yard pass receiver Trevon Brown (6-2, 215, Sr.) The Pirates have a very deep corps of receivers along with Brown with such as Deondre Farrier (6-1, 184, Jr.), Blake Proehl (6-1, 180, R-Fr.) and tight end D’Angelo McKinnie (6-4,235) all of whom are capable of stepping up with big plays and big games.
The Pirate offensive line is a big bunch dominated by juniors and seniors. Brandon Pena (6-2, 288) and Garrett McGhin (6-6, 302) will hold down the right side while Cortez Herrin (6-2, 328) and D’Ante Smith (6-4, 295) will man the left side.
The main running back will be senior Anthony Scott (5-9, 200) who sat out last years as an academic causality. A&T will again face an unknown quantity at quarterback as the sophomore Reid Herring (6-3,197) will be making his first ever start as college quarterback. He appeared in just two games last season attempting just one pass on the year albeit a touchdown.
Defensively the Pirates must improve on what was the worst defense in the FBS (130th) which gave up a 45 points and a whopping 545 yards in total offense per game in 2017.
The Pirates 4-2-5 base set should be very similar to A&T which had some difficulty in finding a rhythm against that very same alignment with Jacksonville State.
The Pirates will depend heavily on junior end Kendall Futrell (6-2, 230). He will get plenty of help from tackles Jalen Price (6-2, 297) and Alex Turner (6-2, 293). Linebackers Brian Bivens (6-1, 230, Jr.) and Aaron Ramsuer (6-1, 206) are a pair of talented sophomores.
The secondary is probably their strongest defensive unit overall with Colby Gore (6-0, 170) and Corey Seargent (6-0, 179), safeties Marcus Holton (6-0,170) and Nolan Johnson (6-2, 196), and nickel back Devon Sutton (5-11, 198).
Now that all the fist bumps and congratulatory sentiments surrounding A&T’s upset of Jacksonville State have finally died down, the Aggies now have to turn their attention to something they are very familiar with – the task of trying to upend a in-state FBS opponent.
The Aggies were very successful in that undertaking a year ago in dispatching Charlotte in a game that they pretty much dominated on both sides of the ball. Granted Charlotte wasn’t exactly a world beater but still given the advantages of 20 more scholarship players, a glistening new football complex and a pretty much inexhaustible supply of Jerry Richardson money to back their effort, it became very clear at the end of that game that grand facilities, deep pockets, and a FBS designation alone doesn’t necessarily guarantee superiority on the football field.
East Carolina is a program with a lot of football tradition that really started in the early 1970’s, first under Sonny Randle and then a big explosion under Pat Dye later into that decade. After some up and down years through the 80’s, Steve Logan came along in 1992 and in his ten years at the helm made the Pirates a consistent winner with 3 Bowl trips.
In the late 2000’s Skip Holtz took the Pirates to 2 Conference USA titles and 4 straight bowl trips. Ruffin McNeill put his stamp on the ECU brand as well with 4 bowl trips of his own in his six seasons along with some very memorable shellackings of both UNC and NCSU. So despite the recent downturn of fortune, there is plenty of tradition still alive in Greenville.
Make no mistake about it. A&T will be walking into a hornets nest this weekend. It is extremely rare that any team faces an all-or-nothing at all proposition right out of the box but such is the predicament that ECU finds itself in this week.
A loss to the Aggies in front an expected crowd of 35,000 plus will almost certainly spell the end of Scottie Montgomery’s stint as head coach. Going 6-18 over the last two years is bad enough but the ECU fan base and more importantly the boosters will not tolerate a defeat at the hands of an in-state FCS program, let alone an HBCU, no matter how good they may be.
So can A&T pull the hat trick and pull off a upset of an FBS opponent for third consecutive year? Given last week’s performance, the Aggies must clean up their secondary play against some very good receivers and a strong arm quarterback. The new offensive line will need to grow up a bit and do a much better job creating running lanes.
Confidence and desire won’t be an issue for this A&T team. Execution will be. Against an desperate ECU team and coach that has to perform in a must win situation with everything to lose, this is going to be the one huge obstacle for A&T to overcome .
East Carolina – 27
NC. A&T – 20