All five programs in the West have used first-year starters, with Southern reinserting the lone second-season performer just this week.
“That leads to a wide-open situation on this side of the bracket,” said first-year Prairie View A&M coach Heishma Northern, a longtime SWAC assistant and former player. “On the other side, Jackson and Alcorn State have returning guys; Alabama State has a guy coming back. On that side, I think it will come down to quarterback play. But on our side, you never know which guy will show up. Defense and special teams will be utmost, and who can run the ball the best.”
Already, we’ve seen some dizzying highs and some awful lows, as youthful passers find their way.
Prairie View A&M, of course, just completed a barnburner at the Labor Day Classic in Houston, having come back from 14 points down in the fourth quarter to beat in-state SWAC rival Texas Southern, 37-34. It was the Panthers’ fifth straight Labor Day Classic victory. But Northern’s team is already on its second quarterback, as the program moves forward with out K.J. Black, who led Prairie View (1-1, 1-0 SWAC) to a league title two seasons ago.
Jonathan Troast was benched after the Panthers stumbled badly in the opener against Bethune-Cookman, replaced by Jerry Lovelocke. The freshman quarterback threw for just 72 yards, but lead all rushers with 67 yards — including a 30-yard dash to score that moved his team to within striking distance of the win, at 34-27. Lovelocke then led two consecutive scoring drives, tossing a 15-yard touchdown to Greg Thurmond then getting his team in place for a game-winning kick.
Texas Southern (0-1, 0-1), meanwhile, is also starting a newcomer in Dantavious Parker. Arkansas-Pine Bluff (1-1, 1-0) used a powerful running attack to score 17 unanswered second-half points and claim a come-from-behind victory over Alcorn State, 27-20. UAPB quarterback Ben Anderson, a red-shirt freshman, finished 14-of-24 for 168 yards and a score.
First-year starter D.J. Williams, a week after Grambling’s emotional season-opening win over Alcorn State, struggled against FBS foe Louisiana-Monroe, going 10-of-21 while throwing two interceptions at the Tigers (1-1; 1-0) fell 35-7. (He didn’t receive much help from his defense, however, which surrendered 247 rushing yards.) Southern benched freshman J.P. Douglas after a season-opening loss to Tennessee State, then got each of its three touchdowns last week from Dray Joseph beating Alabama A&M 21-6 in the SWAC opener for both teams. The sophomore, who played in 9 games in 2010, went 18-of-27 for 308 yards as Southern (1-1; 1-0) snapped a seven-game losing streak dating back to last season.
All of this uncertainty could have historic win-loss implications for the division’s eventual champion. Only twice has a representative from the rugged SWAC West dropped more than one contest before punching its ticket to Birmingham, Ala., since the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship game was established.
Grambling was undefeated in SWAC play in 2005 and 2008, and had 1 loss going into its SCG appearances of 2007, 2002, 2001 (though Alabama State has since forfeited that game), and 2000. Similarly, Southern was undefeated in 1999, and had 1 loss in 2003 and 2004. Prairie View had 1 loss in 2009. Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Texas Southern are the exceptions. Eventual champ Texas Southern had three losses last season; UAPB had two losses in 2006, and fell in the SCG to Alabama A&M.
The other side of the bracket has sometimes found easier passage to the league’s championship match. More than half of the East participants have had at least two losses since the game began in 1999.
“This may be the year that a two- or three-loss ball club sneaks in from the West,” Northern told me. “It’s hard to see who will get consistent play with that many new faces.”