Duane Nash is the creator of The Yard HBCU and co-host of the @SLZEsports podcast. Follow Duane on Twitter @TheYardHBCU.[divider]
[divider]Yes, I’m releasing this list during the fourth week of the football season. Why? The games that truly matter in the MEAC and SWAC are being played starting this weekend.
[divider]BENNETTRANK: Where's NC A&T This Week?[divider]
Forget about the 50 combined matchups against non-conference opponents, the HBCU inter-conference rivalry games, The Classics and the “money games”.
Ignore North Carolina A&T’s big wins over Jacksonville State and East Carolina. SWAC fans can even erase this pass weekend where Alabama A&M, Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Prairie View A&M were outscored 199-30.
The only thing that matters now is winning your respective conference and playing in Mercedes-Benz Stadium this December.
There’s no surprise the teams that were ranked first and second in their respective conferences this preseason will play in must-see matchups, but where do those games rank and against which rival? We’re on the road to the Celebration Bowl.
Here’s our list of the top 11 regular season games that will determine who will be there:[divider]
11. Prairie View A&M vs Grambling State — Sep. 29, Dallas, TX
Picked to finish third in the SWAC West Division after completing the 2017 season with a 4-3 conference record, Prairie View A&M is looking to be the dark horse in the SWAC this season under first year head coach Eric Dooley. Don’t let their 1-2 record fool you.
The Panthers losses were by three points to FBS opponent Rice (at the end of regulation) and by eight to FCS Powerhouse Sam Houston State, who have made the FCS playoffs every year since 2011.
Even though they haven’t lost to the Panthers since 2013, do the Tigers and SWAC Preseason Defensive Player of the Year linebacker De’Arius Christmas have enough to slow down the Panthers high powered offense?[divider]
COMPARE: Prairie View vs. Grambling State[divider]
10. Southern at Prairie View A&M — Oct. 13
If Prairie View can get through Grambling, they will still have to do something they haven’t done since 2008 if they want to be crowned SWAC West Division Champions, defeat coach Dawson Odums and the Southern Jaguars in Texas.
Even though the Jags have won four of their last five matchups, things could be a little different in 2018. Southern was ranked fifth or worse in the SWAC in the major defensive categories (points per, total, rushing and pass) and will have some big shoes to fill with the loss of six All-SWAC performers.
Enter Prairie View running back Dawonya Tucker that currently has 542 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns.[divider]
COMPARE: Southern vs. Prairie View[divider]
9. Howard at Bethune-Cookman — Sep. 22
If MEAC fans are looking for a team outside of the Tarheel State to represent them in Atlanta this December, they just might come out of this game. After going 7-4 last year, some would say that the Bison had a few big wins in coach Mike London and All-Conference quarterback Caylin Newton's first season in DC.
One of those wins was a 26-24 thriller over Bethune Cookman, a feat Howard has not been able to do since 2006. There’s no way that coach Terry Sims and his Wildcats have forgotten about that over the summer.[divider]
COMPARE: Howard vs. Bethune-Cookman[divider]
8. Alabama State at Grambling State — Sep. 22
How real is Alabama State? Can head coach Donald Hill-Eley carry over the momentum of guiding the Hornets to a 5-1 record in his interim season? Are the Hornets good enough to win it’s first SWAC championship since 2004? These questions, and more, will be answered in this potential SWAC Title Game preview.
The Hornets will have a tough task. Coach Broderick Fobbs and Tigers, who haven’t lost to ASU since 2014, have won the last two SWAC championships and have been tabbed to win it again this year.[divider]
COMPARE: Alabama State vs. Grambling State[divider]
7. North Carolina Central at Bethune-Cookman — Nov. 8
Yes, that loss to the Aggies in the regular season finale of 2017 hurts but I bet that last second 13-10 loss to Bethune Cookman the week before stings a lot too. Don’t worry Eagle fans, getting payback away from home may not be as hard as it seems for coach Eastman.
Even though this game is in Daytona (as are Wildcat match-ups against A&T and Howard), the Eagles are 2-2 all-time at Bethune Cookman.
This nationally televised match-up could be a high scoring affair. Currently, both teams are averaging over 36.5 points per game.[divider]
COMPARE: North Carolina Central vs. Bethune-Cookman[divider]
6. Alcorn State at Southern — Sep. 29
Coach Odums must be tired of being good. Yes, Southern is eyeing a sixth straight winning season under his guidance but the Jags haven’t won a SWAC title since 2013.
If the Jags want to prove that they are a true contender for the conference championship, it would help if they can defeat East Division power Alcorn State in this potential SWAC Title Game preview.
The Jags beat the Braves in 2016 but Alcorn has won 6 of the last 7 match-ups and haven’t lost to Southern IN Baton Rouge since 2011.[divider]
COMPARE: Alcorn State vs. Southern[divider]
5. North Carolina A&T at Bethune-Cookman — Oct. 20
Coach Sims will try to do something against Sam Washington that he wasn’t able to do versus Rod Broadway: get a win. If Bethune wants a chance at winning the MEAC crown, they will have to beat A&T but the Wildcats have lost three of their last four against the Aggies.
Bethune’s last win over A&T came in 2011 but the Aggies have had their struggles against the Wildcats in Daytona. Even with their 52-35 win in 2016, the Aggies are 1-4 in their last five games in Central Florida.[divider]
COMPARE: North Carolina A&T vs. Bethune Cookman[divider]
4. Alabama State at Alcorn State — Oct. 6
Sure, this match-up hasn’t been competitive over the last four seasons, with the Braves winning those games by an average of 20 points, but maybe things change this season.
If ASU’s coach Hill-Eley is hoping to win the game that could decide the SWAC East Division Title, he will have to field a defense similar to last year’s that ranked first in scoring defense (18.0 allowed points per game), first in total defense (302.3 yards allowed per game), fourth in rushing defense (146.6 allowed yards per game), and third in pass defense (155.6 yards allowed per game).
To make things a little tougher for the Hornets, they will have to get this win in Lorman, a place they haven’t won since 2012.[divider]
COMPARE: Alabama State vs. Alcorn State[divider]
3. Grambling State vs Southern — Nov. 24, New Orleans, LA
Dating back to 2014, The Bayou Classic has become the de facto SWAC West Division title game. Unfortunately for Jag Nation, the last time Southern has won this match-up was 2014. If coach Odums wants to get back to the SWAC championship game, they’ll have to figure out how to put up points on the SWAC’s second ranked scoring defense.
The good news for Southern is that the offense that put up a conference high 31.2 points per game will look different, with the loss of All-SWAC performers quarterback Devante Kincade and running back Martez Carter.[divider]
COMPARE: Grambling State vs. Southern[divider]
2. Howard at North Carolina Central — Oct. 6
If coach London and the Bison are going to live up to their 2nd-place preseason ranking and compete for a conference title, they will have to beat Central. After losing a heart-breaker last year in Greene Stadium, 13-7, the Bison are going to have to do something that this team hasn’t done since 1994, earn a win over the Eagles in Durham.
The Eagles are 5-0 in their last five match-ups against Howard, but can first year head coach Granville Eastman continue that streak?[divider]
COMPARE: Howard vs. North Carolina Central[divider]
1. North Carolina A&T at North Carolina Central — Nov. 17
Over the past four seasons, fewer conference games have had more influence on the eventual MEAC champion that the Aggie/Eagle Classic. These two teams have been the only MEAC representatives in the Celebration Bowl and there is a high possibility that the winner will be headed to Atlanta again in 2018.
That knowledge could create a lot of pressure for first year head coaches Eastman and Washington. Yes, the Aggies are currently on a 15-game win streak. The last team to defeat them in the regular season? North Carolina Central.
The Eagles are 3-1 in their last 4 games against the Aggies and 3-1 in last 4 match-ups in Durham. A&T’s last victory in Durham was 2012.[divider]