Of the remaining MEAC football teams, the North Carolina Central Eagles are the last team to solely win a conference championship, doing so in the 2016 season.
However, the Eagles have struggled in the past two seasons finishing with below .500 records each year.
Last season, the Eagles finished with a 4-8 overall record, going 3-5 in conference. It was the first time they have failed to win five games overall since their first season in the MEAC in 2011.
This was also the first time the Eagles have finished consecutive seasons with a losing conference record since joining the MEAC.
With that being said, a trimmed-down MEAC could prove beneficial for the Eagles, as they were picked by the conference to finish third in their predicted order of finish.
It is conceivable that the Eagles could not only be a contender in the MEAC, but could win the conference outright. If that is to happen, they will have to get over a couple of hurdles that could potentially hold them back.
Can the North Carolina Central Eagles overcome their losses on defense?
If North Carolina Central is going to become a contender in the MEAC, they will have to do it without some of their best players from last season, particularly on defense.
Mills was critical for the Eagles’ secondary leading the conference with five interceptions and was second on the team with eight pass breakups. He was named to the First Team All-MEAC, BOXTOROW HBCU All-American Team, and the FCS Coaches Coaches’ All-American Second Team.
Meanwhile, Darius Royster had a dominant 2019 season that saw him lead the MEAC in sacks (9.0), tackles for loss (16.5) and forced fumbles (3). He was named MEAC Defensive Player of the Year, BOXTOROW Defensive Player of the Year.
Other key losses for the Eagles defense include DL Cyrus Stanback who was second on the team with 4.5 sacks, DB Deonta Fair who was second on the team with two interceptions and DL Kawuan Cox who tied for the third most sacks on the team.
Of the defensive linemen that remain for the Eagles, only one player, Chuck Manning, recorded two sacks or more in the 2019 season.
Even with all of these losses, the Eagles still have a good number of talented players on defense that could help put the team over the top primarily coming from their secondary.
Junior defensive back Justin Nicholson led the Eagles in 2019 with nine pass breakups, senior defensive back Stephen Stokes recorded 7.0 tackles for loss, two interceptions and six pass breakups, and sophomore defensive lineman Manny Smith had 3.0 tackles for loss and three pass breakups as a freshman.
If the defensive linemen are able to step up and help this defense reach its full potential, the sky is the limit for this group.
Is the Eagles’ offense good enough?
While North Carolina Central will see the majority of their offensive starters return for the 2021 season, they will need to show improvement over their 2019 season if they want any chance to win the MEAC.
NC Central had the second-worst scoring offense in the MEAC in 2019 averaging 17.5 points per game. They scored the least total touchdowns of any team ranking second to last in rushing touchdowns (11) and third to last in passing touchdowns (13).
They were one of only two teams in the MEAC that did not record either 15 passing touchdowns or 15 rushing touchdowns (Delaware State).
Only three players on the Eagles offense were selected to the Preseason All-MEAC team including offensive linemen Robert Mitchell and Corey Bullock each making the second team while running back Isaiah Totten was their only first-team selection.
Totten is expected to have a breakout season as he was also selected to the Black College Football Player of the Year watch list by the Black College Football Hall of Fame. In 2019, he recorded 636 rushing yards averaging 4.0 yards per carry scoring three rushing touchdowns.
Under center, sophomore quarterback Davius Richard will look to improve on what was a solid freshman season. He finished with 2,020 passing yards scoring 12 passing touchdowns as well as 245 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns.
While the Eagles do not exactly have a dominant primary receiver, they do have a nice balance of targets for Richard to work with. It is up to the offense to produce helping make North Carolina Central a true competitive team.
Key games on the North Carolina Central schedule
Week 1 vs. Alcorn State (MEAC/SWAC Challenge): The season opener for the Eagles is a preview of the 2021 Celebration Bowl as the Eagles face off against the Alcorn State Braves in the MEAC/SWAC Challenge. This will be a matchup of the Eagles’ secondary going up against the Braves’ pass offense led by 2019 SWAC Offensive Player of the Year quarterback Felix Harper. Not only is there pressure on these teams as this game will be the first HBCU football game of the season, not only is there the pressure of this being a nationally televised game on ESPN, but this could also potentially be a preview of this year’s Celebration Bowl.
Week 4 vs. North Carolina A&T: This matchup may not have conference championship implications anymore — seeing as the North Carolina A&T Aggies are now in the Big South — but it is a rivalry game that has not gone North Carolina Central’s way recently. NCCU has lost each of the last three games against the Aggies, getting shut out in each of the last two losing by a combined score of 99-0. This is more about making a statement for the Eagles; that they are more than just a threat in the MEAC but also in the FCS.
Week 8/9 vs. South Carolina State/Norfolk State: North Carolina Central has a pretty favorable conference schedule with two of its three home games coming against the two teams that will most likely be NCCU’s toughest competition to win the MEAC in the South Carolina State Bulldogs and Norfolk State Spartans. The Eagles lost their last home game against each team including losing their last two home games against Norfolk State. A loss in either of these games could spell the end for the Eagles’ chances to win the conference.