Going into the 2021 MEAC football season, the South Carolina State Bulldogs will return to the field in what will be an entirely different conference.
With North Carolina A&T, Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman all gone from the conference, there will just be six active football teams in the MEAC (Coppin State and University of Maryland, Eastern Shore do not have football programs).
The Bulldogs enter the fall with high expectations as they have been picked in the MEAC’s predicted order of finish to win the conference and for good reason.
In 2019, South Carolina State shared the MEAC championship with North Carolina A&T but it was the Aggies who gained the Celebration Bowl appearance by virtue of winning their head-to-head matchup in the regular season.
They will look to become just the second team to represent the MEAC in the Celebration Bowl that is not North Carolina A&T.
Can South Carolina State overcome its losses?
The Bulldogs will start 2021 with a completely different roster from the 2019 season. Their biggest change will be on the defensive side of the ball as with much of their defensive line now gone.
Each of their top five leaders in sacks from the 2019 season Bruce Johnson, Tyrell Goodwin, Roderick Perry, Xavier Johnson and Johnell Brown all no longer with the team.
In 2019, SCSU tied for the third-most sacks in the conference with 28. The five players listed above accounted for 23 of those 28 sacks. They also led the MEAC with 10 fumble recoveries with four coming from the players who are absent this year.
They have also undergone significant changes on the offensive side with their 2019 leading rusher Labron Morris and leading receiver De’Montre Burroughs.
Morris ranked third in the MEAC in rushing yards per game (61.2) and rushing touchdowns (9). He accounted for nine of his team’s 16 rushing touchdowns that season.
Meanwhile, Burroughs led the MEAC in receiving touchdowns (13), tied his teammate Shaquan Davis for the lead in yards per catch (20.4) and was second in receiving yards per game (85.3).
Burroughs played a big role in what was a big play pass offense for the Bulldogs that led the conference in yards per attempt (15.6) in the 2019 season.
Is South Carolina State the MEAC favorite?
Despite all their losses, South Carolina State still had 10 players selected to the MEAC’s Preseason All-Conference team the second-most of any team in the conference.
They are led by defensive back Decobie Durant who was named the MEAC Preseason Defensive Player of the Year.
The Bulldogs went a perfect 5-0 against the five remaining MEAC teams in the 2019 season with all but one of those wins coming by double figures.
South Carolina State had the No. 1 defense in the conference allowing just 20.3 points per game. Their greatest success came when defending the pass allowing the fewest passing touchdowns (13), fewest yards per attempt (6.2) and the lowest passing efficiency rating (104.4).
They tied for second in the conference with 14 interceptions and were the only team in the conference that recorded more interceptions than their opponent scored in passing touchdowns.
Along with Durant, the Bulldogs will see a number of key members from their secondary return in 2021, including sophomore BJ Davis who tied for the third most passes defended in the MEAC (11) as a freshman.
South Carolina State was exceptional in defending the run tying for the least rushing touchdowns allowed in the MEAC (15) and allowing the second-fewest yards per game (122.5). The Bulldogs also led the MEAC in third down defense only allowing teams to convert 32.9 percent of the time.
If the Bulldogs are able to replicate the success they had on defense, they could for sure be looked at as a clear favorite in the MEAC.
Also read: HBCU football preview: Will UAPB contend for a SWAC title in the fall?
Key games on the South Carolina State schedule
Week 1 vs Alabama A&M: South Carolina State begins the 2021 season facing off against the reigning SWAC champion Alabama A&M in what could be a preview of the Celebration Bowl. These two teams actually met in the spring ending with Alabama A&M taking a commanding 31-7 win on South Carolina State’s home field. Prior to that, their most recent matchup came in 2013 when South Carolina State won shutting out the Bulldogs 32-0. This game, however, will be played on Alabama A&M’s home field.
Week 8 vs North Carolina Central: The last time these two teams met, the Bulldogs won decisively shutting out the Eagles 24-0 despite quarterback Corey Fields throwing for a season-low 42 yards. This game will be played on the Eagles’ home field where the Bulldogs have beaten them in two of their last three matchups. If South Carolina State is able to replicate that success, they could be one step closer to being crowned MEAC champions.
Week 11 vs Norfolk State: Although Norfolk State has not had a winning season since 2007 (wins from 2009-2011 were vacated), there is optimism that they could be a contender to represent the MEAC in the Celebration Bowl. The Spartans had a MEAC-high 14 players selected to the Preseason All-Conference team including quarterback Juwan Carter who was named Preseason Offensive Player of the Year. This will be a matchup of arguably the best offense in the MEAC against arguably the best defense. Being that this is the season finale for both, it could very well be the deciding factor in who wins the MEAC.