The comparisons are being made, and they aren't coming in the form of whispers. How good could this Alcorn State team be in 2019? Certainly it has the tools to be very strong, both offensively and defensively. So many key components return to a program that already has been good for years, winning five straight SWAC East titles and two SWAC championships in that span. This year's offense is being compared to the record-breaking Steve McNair era in terms of its ability to hang points on the board. Could the school's record of 10 wins in 2014 be challenged?
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The answer to the above is, absolutely this team can make headlines this year. In fact, it has an opportunity to prove how good it is against FBS Southern Miss this weekend, even if the oddsmakers think otherwise with the Golden Eagles favored by 26.5. The offense that was ranked No. 13 in the FCS last year in production is almost entirely intact. The defense that ranked No. 8 in the FCS (total defense) and No. 3 against the run returns several key players. This team is a year older and it is hungry because it fell by two points to North Carolina A&T in the HBCU National Title game, also known as the Celebration Bowl.
The comparisons to the "Air" McNair era (1991-94) — when the famous Alcorn State QB brought national attention to the school when invited to the Heisman Trophy ceremony — is quite a compliment. McNair's life ended tragically, but his name resonates on the Lorman, Mississippi campus. His older brother Fred has become the successful head coach of the Braves after being a standout QB in his own right at Alcorn State, and the accomplishments Steve had in the 1990s will be in the record books forever.
"I've only been here for two years, and this is my first time hearing that comparison to the teams when Steve McNair was here," 1,200-yard rusher De'Shawn Waller told HERO Sports on Monday. "It feels really good to be in that conversation, especially seeing him (in the NFL) when I was growing up. He represented Alcorn well. We all understand the system and we're all coming together as one. If somebody messes up, we talk about it and practice on it and try to be consistent every day to all be on the same page. We want to put points on the board."
Everybody always wants to talk about the quarterback, and we will do that because Alcorn has a special one in Noah Johnson, but one also can't ignore the studs coming back up front. Linemen like Kevin Hall and Mustaffa Ibrahim prove this team isn't just about the skill talent, and wide receiver Chris Blair is a special player who doesn't get as much attention only because of Johnson and Waller. Blair may truly explode this year in the passing game, as he was the leading receiver last year.
FCS PREVIEW: Alcorn State
Johnson, who was good for 2,200 yards passing and 1,100 yards rushing in 2018, is the catalyst. He's also the unofficial upbeat spokesman for this group. He, like Waller, is honored to even have the name McNair mentioned when talking about the 2019 team.
"It's very good praise and this offense does have very high expectations," Johnson told HERO Sports. "With that comes hard work, and we're just trying to ball out every day and wing it, while still having fun doing it."
Johnson is an interesting story himself, coming from Tampa, Florida state powerhouse Seffner Armwood. He had Group of 5 teams like South Florida, Florida Atlantic and Georgia State chasing him in high school, but they all wanted him to switch positions. He chose Alcorn State because of the chance to play quarterback, and last year he very nearly engineered a massive comeback win at G5 New Mexico State, rallying the Braves from a 28-point first-half deficit to get within three points midway through the fourth quarter. He knew he was FBS caliber talent at QB coming out of high school, but nobody but Alcorn State agreed. This weekend, he gets to take on another G5 team at Southern Miss, an in-state challenge. A lot of his current teammates played high school football against players at Southern Miss … it should be a passionate game.
FCS PREVIEW: SWAC Preview
Johnson thinks experience could be a key in being able to go toe-to-toe with an FBS program this weekend.
"In the middle of last season, we started clicking," Johnson said. "I remember thinking, we're only juniors, I have a whole other year with these guys. It's a blessing. It's crazy because we are considered the 'old heads.' We're vets now. It's awesome. We're a senior-heavy team and we're expected to play like we've been there before."
This team wants to be noticed, not just by the HBCU Nation that already knows how good the Braves can be, but by the rest of the FCS and college football in general. It also wants to please its coach and live up to the McNair name, and maybe etch its own name into the Alcorn State record books, just like Steve McNair did 25 years ago when he posted career passing numbers that only last year were surpassed at the FCS level (by Samford's Devlin Hodges).
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