The Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference ended last season with five teams sharing the conference title and Morgan State advancing to the Football Championship Division playoffs.
This season, those same five teams are locked in a six-team steel cage match for the right to represent the MEAC in the inaugural Celebration Bowl Dec. 19 in Atlanta against the Southwestern Athletic Conference champion.
So, before someone hits their finishing move and eliminates a competitor from the match, let’s look a bit at the MEAC race.
CHALK RULES: The five 2014 co-champions took the first five spots in the 2015 preseason polls. North Carolina A&T was picked to win the 11-team league (actually eight this season because Florida A&M, Howard and Savannah State are ineligible for postseason).
Other co-champions South Carolina State, Bethune-Cookman, North Carolina Central and Morgan State rounded out the top five spots.
Midway through the season, and the standings are pretty much the way the preseason polls predicted. N.C. A&T (5-1, 3-0) leads the pack, followed by Bethune-Cookman (5-2, 3-1), Morgan State (3-3, 3-1), N.C. Central (3-3, 2-1), S.C. State (3-3, 2-1) and Norfolk State (2-4, 2-1) round out the top portion of the league.
If you want to look deeper, Hampton (4-3, 3-2) was picked to finish sixth and received two first-place votes while Norfolk State was picked to finish seventh.
Out of the eight eligible MEAC teams, seven teams have some kind of shot at the league title. However, Hampton’s two league losses — to Norfolk State and N.C. A&T — make the Pirates’ title hopes a lot slimmer than it looks.
In case you were curious about the remaining eligible MEAC team, Savannah State (1-5, 1-3) did get a landmark win over Florida A&M. Yes, the Rattlers are down, but the Tigers will get it how they live and take victories any way they can.
SIGH: Florida A&M’s Board of Trustees tried twice to vote out current President Elmira Mangum during its Thursday meeting, but the motions failed.
With the board seemingly at odds with its leader and the football team in the midst of a 1-6 (1-3) season, one can theorize why the Rattlers’ program is not where a lot of people think it should be.
However, here is mine — the revolving door of leadership of the football program and the institution itself.
The university is on its sixth president since Frederick Humphries stepped down in 2001, and current head coach Alex Wood is the fourth since Billy Joe left after the 2004 season.
The Rattlers have not won an outright conference title since 2001, Humphries’ last year as president. The 2001 MEAC title was also Joe’s last conference title as head.
The Rattlers shared the MEAC title with Bethune-Cookman and South Carolina State in 2010, which was the second year of Joe Taylor’s tenure.
Since Joe’s departure, FAMU’s coaches posted a 59-61 combined record.
Let’s not go to the athletics director position, which is a set of unique circumstances. All we know is current AD Milton Overton Jr. is the school’s fourth since this time a year ago and the first full-time AD since Kellen Winslow Sr. stepped down in December 2014.
MIDSEASON OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Tarik Cohen, RB, North Carolina A&T: The Aggie All-American and reigning MEAC offensive player of the year currently leads the league in rushing (137 carries, 646 yards, 8 TDs, 107.7 ypg), all-purpose yards (130.2 ypg) and scoring for non-kickers.
MIDSEASON DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Jason Hargrave, DL, South Carolina State: The reigning conference defensive player of the year anchors the MEAC’s leader in total defense, and arguably the best defensive line in HBCU football at this point of the season.
The anchor of the Bulldogs’ defensive front currently ranks fourth in the MEAC in sacks (3.5) and sixth in tackles for loss (8.5). The All-American has drawn so much focus that teammates began feasting on opposing offenses. Hargrave’s presence helped free up defensive end Gregtavious Newell and linebacker Reggie Owens to make plays. Newell and Owens each have four sacks, tied for second in the conference.
MIDSEASON COACH OF THE YEAR: Lee Hull, Morgan State: We know Rod Broadway has North Carolina A&T firing on all cylinders and there are four or five other coaches that merit consideration. However, the Bears’ second-year coach gets the nod for keeping Morgan in contention without their best player.
Bears running back Herb Walker Jr., who led the MEAC in rushing yards (1,430) last season and a preseason All-American this season, was deemed ineligible as the NCAA reviewed the school’s student-athlete records.
So what does Hull and company do in the absence of Walker? Employ a two-headed monster in the backfield in running backs Orlando Johnson and Lamont Brown and combine them with dual-threat quarterback, Moses Skillon. The trio spearheads the MEAC’s second-best rushing attack, averaging 170.7 yards per game on the ground.
THE TEAM TO WATCH DOWN THE STRETCH: North Carolina A&T: The road to the Celebration Bowl figuratively and somewhat literally runs through Greensboro, North Carolina.
The 24th-ranked Aggies sit alone at the top of the MEAC standings (5-1, 3-0), and seem poised to get some separation from the rest of the pack. N.C. A&T hosts winless Howard for the “Greatest Homecoming on Earth” this weekend, and follows that up next week with a road trip to Tallahassee to face one-win FAMU.
N.C. A&T has a key road league game against South Carolina State Nov. 7 before finishing the regular season with home games against currently winless Delaware State (Nov. 14) and a season-ending rivalry game against North Carolina Central.
If the Aggies get through the MEAC unscathed, then Aggie Pride will take a roughly five-hour drive down Interstate 85 to see their team in the Celebration Bowl.