It’s no coincidence that both Jackson State University and Bethune Cookman University are on a collision course this upcoming Sunday in Atlanta, Georgia for the 2019 MEAC/SWAC Challenge, as both programs are looking to start the year off strong with a win.
For Jackson State, the fan base is expecting a resurgence back to SWAC respectability following an up and down 2018 campaign that posted the Tigers best record since 2013 at 5-5. The Tigers finished 3rd in the SWAC East, with marquee wins against Prairie View A&M and Florida A&M, and a competitive showing in a loss against defending SWAC champs Alcorn State.
JSU athletic director Ashley Robinson wasted no time in removing the interim tag from veteran coach John Hendrick, who finished last season 2-1 after being named head coach in the middle of the season. Hendrick won the team over with his immediate success.
The fans are excited about the quarterback battle brewing in Jackson as the Tigers have two promising QB’s in true freshman Jalon Jones and returning veteran Derrick Ponder.
“I believe in all four of our quarterbacks on the roster. I sincerely believe it’s a matter of who takes over, who the guys gravitate too, and who can orchestrate an offense without making mistakes.” Hendrick said at a recent press conference. “The fans will know whose starting on September 1.”
For Bethune Cookman, the wildcats finished strong in their 2018 season with a 7-5 mark. The season included marquee wins over Howard, North Carolina Central, and ended with a three-game winning streak to cap off the campaign with a win over Florida A&M.
However, the Wildcat fan base and fifth-year head coach Terry Sims are not resting on their laurels. They want to insert themselves back into the MEAC championship race and Celebration Bowl conversation. But they know they will have to go through North Carolina A&T and a hardened FAMU Rattler squad to get to Atlanta in December.
Bethune Cookman has some questions on offense that only improved play from both wide receiver Keavon Mitchell and quarterback Akevious Williams can answer.
“Williams has been taking reps all spring and fall with the first unit following his injury,” Coach Sims stated. “He’s our guy and the guy we will be leaning heavily on this season.”
Both Jackson State and Bethune Cookman return some pretty stingy defenses to the field. They’ll be looking to lean on defense while the offense establishes rhythm and chemistry on the field.
For the Wildcats, they return a seasoned defense with the secondary being their strength in senior defensive back Trevor Merritt, linebacker Marquis Hendricks, defensive back Tyderious Peters, and junior transfer linebacker Untareo Johnson.
Merritt, Hendricks, Peters, and Johnson contributed eight interceptions for four touchdowns, 280 total tackles, and nine tackles for losses for the Wildcat secondary last year. The group will be looking to build upon that this upcoming season.
Jackson State returns one of the toughest redzone, and front seven defenses in the FCS, only being rivaled by in conference member Alcorn State.
The defense is led by sophomore linebacker Keonte Hampton, senior defensive lineman Charles Anderson, defensive lineman Khalil Johnson, and junior defensive back C.J. Holmes.
A strong front-seven should be what the doctor ordered for the Tigers’ defense. Hampton, Anderson, Johnson, and Holmes combined for 206 total tackles, 25 tackles for losses, nine pass breakups, and will be looking to add more turnovers to the stat line this season.
Coming into Sunday’s matchup, both teams know that this MEAC/SWAC Challenge isn’t just a typical game. It’s the puzzle piece both sides need to help jump-start their season.
The head coaching debut of Hendrick (without the interim tag) is being watched closely. The Tigers have not had an opening season win in years. With tough opponents in South Alabama and Tennessee State coming behind BCU, this is a must-win for the Tigers to avoid a familiar 0-3 mark to start the 2019 season.
“We are walking away from training camp believing we’ve made progress in all three phases of the game defensively, offensively, and in the kicking game,” stated Hendricks. “Some of our younger players have come in and really bolstered our depth in key positions.”
Bethune Cookman is coming into the Meac/Swac Challenge with expectations to walk away with a win and nothing less.
The Wildcats have to continue to win the games they’re supposed to if they want to have a shot at knocking off the defending MEAC and Celebration Bowl champions North Carolina A&T. Not to mention that they’ll have dog fights with North Carolina Central and in-state rival FAMU later in the season. So this is not a game the Wildcats want to lose.
“Our focus all spring and early fall has been Jackson State and not looking past Jackson State.”, said Coach Sims
Bethune Cookman and Jackson State are hungry. Both are ready to take that next step up. Both believe they have the talent to contend in their respective conferences, and neither can’t afford to lose early. Which means the 2019 MEAC/SWAC Challenge will be one for the books.
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