The wait is over!
The 2021 college football season is finally here, and we are in for a full slate of games from all 19 HBCU FCS-level programs for the first time since 2019 – COVID permitting.
There has been an abundance of chance that has happened within HBCU Football since the last time everyone has suited up to play, creating a plethora of headlines for this fall: The SWAC welcomes two new teams with Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman. Alcorn State moves to the SWAC’s West Division. North Carolina A&T joins Hampton in the Big South. There are new head coaches at Norfolk State, Southern, and Tennessee State. Coaches Deion Sanders (Jackson State) and Larry Scott (Howard) will look to continue their “first season.”
Can Jackson State live up to the hype? Will an HBCU return to the FCS playoffs for the first time since 2016? A new Celebration Bowl Champion will be crowned but who will it be?
With that said – and it was a lot — I’ll break down the 30 best FCS Black College Football matchups of the 2021 season.
The Hampton Rivalries: Battle of the Real HU/Truth & Service Classic & Battle of the Bay
I kind of cheated with this one, placing two games in one slot but it’s MY list. Both games have equal relevance, seeing as though they are major out-of-conference rivalries for Hampton. Coach Robert Prunty and the Pirates will return to DC for the first time since 2016 (Sept. 18), where they will look to extend their current four-game win streak over Howard in the Truth & Service Classic at Audi Field.
Two weeks later (Oct. 3), Hampton will return home for the Battle of the Bay, where they will introduce new Norfolk State head coach Dawson Odums to this bitter feud between HBCUs from neighboring cities.
30. Alcorn State vs. UAPB: Sept. 23, 7:30PM (ESPNU)
Expectations for the 2019 SWAC Champion were for them to win the West Division in their first season of realignment, win the SWAC for a fourth time in five seasons and go on to Atlanta in December… again. And then last Saturday happened.
Now, Coach Fred McNair will look to rebound and get back on that championship track, but the Braves will face head coach Doc Gamble and the spring 2021 West Division Champs in their first conference game of the season.
29. Jackson State at Louisiana-Monroe: Sept. 18, 8PM (ESPN+)
Hero Sports’ Sam Herder has a whole list of probable FCS over FBS upsets, and a third of it consists of matchups involving HBCUs. Surprisingly, Sam believes that four teams from the SWAC can do something that no team from that conference has done since 1985 – knock off an FBS opponent.
Of these likely candidates, I’ve chosen to lean on Coach Sanders and his Top 100-ranked recruiting class to have the best chance to get a win over a program that hasn’t won a game since Nov. 23, 2019.
28. Tennessee State vs. Grambling State: Sept. 4, 4PM (NFL Network)
Black College Football Hall of Fame Classic
THE two titans of HBCU Football. Between the two of them, they hold a combined 31 HBCU National Championships and have sent a combined 250 players into the NFL. They will finally face off for the first time since 2002, in the city where these two iconic programs have sent a combined six players to the Pro Football Hall of Fame – Canton, OH.
27. Tennessee State vs. Jackson State: Sept. 11, 7PM (ESPN3)
The Southern Heritage Classic
In 2019, the Tigers from Tennessee had their six-game win streak over JSU snapped in a 49-44 shootout in Memphis. Fast-forward two seasons, insert two “first-year” head coaches who are more known for their NFL playing careers – a combined 12 pro bowl selections between the two of them – that are looking to turn around their respective programs that have averaged less than four wins between the two of them over the last three seasons.
26. Alabama A&M vs Bethune-Cookman: Sept. 16, 7PM (ESPNU)
Welcome to the SWAC, Coach Terry Sims. Your first conference opponent, the 2021 Spring Champs. But Connell Maynor and the AAMU Bulldogs will have to prove that their title run was not an anomaly. After going undefeated on the road in the spring, AAMU was winless as a visitor against SWAC teams in 2019.
25. Bethune-Cookman vs. Jackson State: Oct. 23, 2PM (ESPN+)
Forget about how this game has the chance of being a potential East Division Championship matchup. Disregard how this is the first time Bethune-Cookman will play in Jackson since 1979. Ignore how Jackson State is 2-6 at home against SWAC opponents over the past two seasons.
My mind instantly goes back to the 2019 MEAC/SWAC Challenge. Not because of how Bethune-Cookman finished the game on a 29-0 run to win 36-15, but the image of Wavee Dave coming to the defense of a Jackson player after a score has left an indelible impression on me. It’s time for Round 2, Wavee.
24. Florida A&M vs. Bethune-Cookman: Nov. 20, TBA (ESPN3)
Nine in a row. That feeling can’t sit well with the faithful from Tallahassee. And it’s not just the losses, it’s what some of those losses would ultimately mean. From 2012-2016, wins over FAMU in the Florida Classic would lead to, at least, a share of the MEAC crown. In 2018, the Rattlers would miss out on a December trip to Atlanta due to the Pick Six Heard ‘Round the World.
And 2019, welp, let’s just say that FAMU missed out on an opportunity to be crowned the national black college football champs that season. I doubt that Coach Willie Simmons has forgotten about that because Bethune fans (and their social media team) won’t allow them to.
23. Grambling State vs. Alcorn State: Oct. 9, 3PM (ESPN+)
If the Braves want to win in their new division, they will have to overcome a familiar obstacle. Alcorn has lost seven of the last eight games against Grambling, including their 19-16 OT heartbreaker in Louisiana. The positive, the last time this game was played in Lorman (2018), Alcorn won 33-26.
22. Alabama State vs. Jackson State: Oct. 16, 3PM (ESPN+)
Losing six of their last seven games to Alabama State is one thing. Coming up short in their final matchup by giving up a combined 79 yards in all-purpose yards and a TD to Hornet RB Ezra Gray in ASU’s final drive – which took all of nine seconds — is another. But if that, along with it being homecoming, isn’t enough of a motivator for JSU, ASU’s “childish” post-game celebration in March just might be. “It is what it is. They know they messed up.”
21. North Carolina Central vs. North Carolina A&T: Sept. 25, 6PM (ESPN+)
123-10. That’s the combined score between these two bitter rivals over their previous three games, but the Aggies and Eagles have split their last six matchups. Most assumed that the first non-conference contest between the two teams since 2009 would be an afterthought before the season started due to A&T’s recent run in their former conference – myself included – but Central’s MEAC/SWAC Challenge victory over Alcorn has E-Funk Nation believing that Coach Trei Oliver & Co. could potentially return to their championship form of 2016.
20. Bethune-Cookman vs. South Carolina State: Oct. 2, 1:30PM (ESPN+)
Former MEAC foes will face off in the first week of October, in what some would think of as a potential Celebration Bowl preview. The last time these two teams faced off, Coach Buddy Pough took his Bulldogs into Daytona Beach and not only snapped a five-game win streak for the Wildcats, but they also ended a nine-year homecoming victory run. BCU is looking to return the sentiment in Orangeburg.
19. Southern vs. Grambling State: Nov. 27, 7PM (NBC Sports Network)
The Bayou Classic
One of the best rivalries in all of sports has been one-sided over the past few seasons, including Southern’s 49-7 drubbing of GSU in Shreveport back in April. Coach Broderick Fobbs is looking to return the Tigers back to their dominating ways. GSU was 35-3 against SWAC opponents in Coach Fobbs’ first three seasons, including title games. Ever since the Tigers lost the 2017 Celebration Bowl, GSU has gone 11-10 in conference games.
18. Alabama State vs. Alabama A&M: Oct. 30, 3:30PM (ESPN3)
Magic City Classic
Not only did AAMU win their first East Division title in nearly a decade last Spring, but they also clinched it on the backs of Bama State in their 38-14 routing of the Hornets at the previous Magic City Classic. If the Bulldogs are looking to repeat as division champs, it wouldn’t hurt to get another dub in Birmingham.
17. Grambling State vs. Florida A&M: Oct. 30, 4PM (ESPN+)
A renewed rivalry between new conference opponents. These two legendary programs, that own a combined 27 black college national championships between the two of them, face off for the first time since 2001 at FAMU’s Homecoming. To add more intrigue to this matchup, these legendary programs could go head-to-head again for the SWAC crown.
16. Alabama A&M vs. Grambling State: Oct. 2, 3PM (ESPN+)
To prove that their Spring 2021 wasn’t happenstance, it would help if the Bulldogs can do something that they haven’t done since 2013, get a win over Grambling. Note, AAMU did not face the Tigers in their abbreviated run earlier this year, but the Bulldogs’ last victory over GSU was in Louisiana.
15. UAPB vs. Alabama A&M: Nov. 20, 2PM
The Golden Lions have a lot of doubters. UAPB was predicted to finish fifth in the division they just won only a few months ago. If they can somehow prove the non-believers wrong, this could be a preview to a potential SWAC Title Game rematch in December.
14. Jackson State vs. Southern: Nov. 13, 7PM (ESPN3)
The Jags’ 34-14 manhandling of JSU this past April took place in front of a national audience. Southern’s Interim Head Coach Jason Rollins is looking to extend Southern’s current win streak over the Tigers to nine but Coach Sanders has other plans, earning a JSU victory over SU in Baton Rouge for the first time since 2013.
13. North Carolina A&T vs. South Carolina State: Nov. 13, 1:30PM (ESPN+)
A classic matchup between two former in-conference rivals. The Aggies are unbeaten in their last five games against the Bulldogs, including A&T’s close 22-20 win over SCSU behind former Aggie QB Kylil Carter’s 356 total yards of offense in 2019.
12. Florida A&M vs. Jackson State: Sept. 5, 3PM (ESPN2)
The Orange Blossom Classic
Two of the more prestigious programs in college football history will renew acquaintances in the first week of the season, this time as conference foes. FAMU fans will be happy to welcome their new conference mates to Florida, as Coach Sanders returns to his home state. FAMU head coach Willie Simmons, who previously worked as the offensive coordinator at Alcorn State (2012-14) and head coach at Prairie View A&M (2015-17), will look to avoid going .500 in his career against JSU.
11. North Carolina A&T vs. Kennesaw State: Oct. 16, 5PM (ESPN+)
The Aggies will figure out exactly where they measure up against the Big South elite when they travel to Georgia to face the Owls in their first-ever matchup. Senior DE Jermaine McDaniel and junior LB Kyin Howard will look to slow down that KSU triple-option offense, led by QB Jonathan Murphy and RB Isaac Foster.
10, Alcorn State vs. Jackson State: Nov. 20, 2PM (ESPN+)
The Soul Bowl
Bitter in-state rivals that are no longer divisional foes. Now, the Soul Bowl could possibly be a preview of this season’s SWAC championship game. 4-1 in their last five contests, the Braves have outscored JSU 121-38 … but that was B.S. (Before Sanders). The new, improved Tigers has – according to Coach Sanders – “unequivocally” upgraded themselves at every position.
9. Alcorn State vs. Southern: Oct. 30, 7PM (ESPN+)
The Jags are 0-5 in their last five games against the Braves, including two SWAC title game losses. Southern’s offense appears to be stacked this Fall, with six First Team Preseason All-SWAC players. Coach Rollins will look to duplicate SU’s scoring output from the spring — 37.6 PPG. They’re going to need it if Alcorn QB Felix Harper can return to his 2019 form.
8. South Carolina State vs. Florida A&M: Oct. 9, 6PM
Former heated MEAC rivals will now face off as non-conference opponents in what could be a preview to the Black College Football championship game. With a 6-1 record in their last seven games against the Bulldogs, including a 42-38 come-from-behind win in Orangeburg with 1:08 remaining in the game, look for FAMU WR Xavier Smith and SCSU DB Decobie Durant to be the game’s marquee matchup.
7. Florida A&M vs. Southern: Nov. 6, 7PM (ESPN+)
To say that the Rattlers and Jags have history would not be doing it justice. One of the longest-standing non-conference rivalries in Black College Football history, which used to be played every year from 1941-2001, is now back as an in-conference contest this Fall. FAMU, who has won three of their last four games over Southern, will head to Baton Rouge in what could be a preview of this year’s SWAC title game.
6. South Carolina State vs. North Carolina Central: Oct. 30, 7PM (ESPN+)
Of all the remaining teams in the MEAC, the Bulldogs have struggled the most against NCCU, losing three of their last four contests. The bad news is SCSU will have to travel to Durham to play the Eagles. The good news is their last win against Central came in Durham, a 24-0 shutout in 2019.
5. Jackson State vs. Alabama A&M: Oct. 9, 9PM (ESPN+)
“Get some more five stars.” Coach Connell Maynor’s infamous advice to Coach Sanders after AAMU’s 52-43 shootout victory over the Tigers in April, winning for the sixth time in their last seven matchups against. Bulldog QB Aqeel Glass put up record numbers (440 pass yards, 6 TDs), while AAMU scored the most points against a Division I opponent in 12 years in that game.
If Jackson State expects to get restitution, First Team Preseason All-SWAC LBs Keonte Hampton and Aubrey Miller, Jr. will have to slow down that AAMU offense that averaged 38.5 PPG in the spring.
4. South Carolina State vs. Norfolk State: Nov. 20, 2PM
The Bulldogs needed two late field goals in the closing seconds of regulation and overtime to steal their 2019 matchup over Norfolk State, earning a share of the MEAC title that season. This year’s winner just might punch their ticket to Atlanta in December, as the MEAC’s Offensive Preseason Player of the Year (Norfolk State QB Juwan Carter) will face the conference’s Defensive Preseason Player of the Year (SCSU DB Decobie Durant).
3. Monmouth vs. North Carolina A&T: Oct. 30, 1PM (ESPN+)
The Aggies will be facing the two-time Big South champ in Greensboro for their first-ever matchup. The highest-ranked opponent to play in Truist Stadium, Coach Sam Washington will have to figure out how to stop conference Offensive Preseason Player of the Year RB Juwon Farri and nullify the Defensive Preseason Player of the Year Anthony Budd if they expect to dethrone the king.
2. Florida A&M vs. Alabama A&M: Oct. 16, 2PM (ESPN+)
The Rattlers will travel to Alabama to face new divisional rival AAMU for the first time ever. Looks like there could be a ton of points scored in this potential East Division title game, with both teams averaging over 30 PPG in their respective last seasons.
1. South Carolina State vs. Alabama A&M: Sept. 4, 7PM
The two favorites in their respective conferences will start their season together again, this time in Huntsville. If things go as expected, they could be meeting again — the third time in a calendar year — in Atlanta this December. SCSU will look to redeem themselves after their poor performance versus AAMU in March, turning the ball over five times in a 31-7 shellacking in Orangeburg.