This Saturday, the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC) returns to the gridiron after sitting out the 2020 football season.
The season kicks off when the Kentucky State Thorobreds face off against the Central State Marauders in the HBCU Classic for Columbus.
The SIAC West dominated the 2010s claiming seven of the 10 conference championships with the Miles Golden Bears winning four and the Tuskegee Golden Tigers winning three.
The SIAC East division is looking for its first SIAC championship win since 2016 when the Fort Valley State Wildcats beat Miles to claim their second conference title in the decade.
If the SIAC predicted order of finish is any indication, it will be the Savannah State Tigers who have that chance to end the SIAC East’s losing streak against the Miles Golden Bears.
Let’s take a deep dive into the 2021 SIAC football season.
Will the Miles Golden Bears win their third straight SIAC title?
As previously mentioned, the Miles Golden Bears had a dominant decade during the 2010s winning four SIAC championships in five appearances, including winning each of the last two SIAC championship games.
The success of the Golden Bears coincides with the hiring of head coach Reginald Ruffin who took over in 2011.
Prior to 2011, Miles had not won a SIAC championship since 1985 when the conference hosted football programs in Division II and Division III. Miles will be looking to become the first team to win three consecutive SIAC championships since Tuskegee from 2007-2009.
If the Golden Bears are going to achieve a third straight conference title, they will have to do it without key pieces from their 2019 team.
On offense, they will be without quarterback Daniel Smith along with their three leading receivers Tyree Leonard, Antonio Lee and Dominique McNealey who have all since graduated.
Meanwhile, on defense, they will play without linebackers Jarius Shade and Ozzie Williams as well as defensive back Maxel Wells and Jarius Grayson.
With that being said, the Golden Bears still have a wealth of talent on their defense including their tandem of linebackers Mitchell Smiley and N’Ktavious Floyd. Both were selected to the All-SIAC Preseason first team while Smiley was selected Preseason Defensive Player of the Year.
In addition, they also have their top two sacks leaders Jaylun Thomas and Marquel Shelton as well as SIAC Preseason team selections Kadarius Roberts and Rodney Coleman.
Will Savannah State claim the SIAC throne?
The Savannah State Tigers will begin their second season back in the SIAC. Previously a member of the conference from 1968-2000, the Tigers were an FCS Independent team from 2000-2009 followed by a stint from 2010-2018 in the MEAC.
During their time in the MEAC, the Tigers finished with an overall record of 12-75 and a conference record of 9-54.
This included a four-season stretch from 2011-2014 that saw the Tigers finish with a combined record of 3-43 and 1-31 in conference. They went three straight seasons without a conference win and a 2014 season without a single win.
In 2019, Savannah State returned to the SIAC with a bang finishing 7-3 overall and 5-0 in the conference. It was the Tigers’ first winning season since 1995 and their first time going unbeaten in conference since 1989, but the team wasn’t eligible to compete for a conference championship.
The Tigers’ run offense was a huge reason for their success, ranking second in the conference in rushing yards per game (258.2) and third in rushing touchdowns (22). Leading that run offense is SIAC Preseason Offensive Player of the Year D’Angelo Durham and quarterback D’Vonn Gibbons.
Durham individually finished the season second in rushing yards per game (97.1) and rushing touchdowns (10). Meanwhile, Gibbons ranked fourth in rushing yards per game (66.8) and tied for the fifth-most rushing touchdowns (7). Savannah State was the only team to have two players rank in the top five in rushing yards per game.
SSU also had the best pass protection in the conference only allowing three total sacks all season.
Not only did the run offense shine for the Tigers, but they also had a very good run defense leading the conference in rushing yards allowed (94.4) and rushing touchdowns allowed (8). While Savannah State did allow the second-most passing yards per game in the conference, they recorded the second-most interceptions (10) returning two for touchdowns.
The Tigers will have a significant number of players from their defense return for the 2021 season including their leader in interceptions Ny’em Bozeman and their leader in tackles for loss who also was second in interceptions Walter Yates among others.
If the Tigers can repeat their success from the 2019 season while adding a SIAC title, they could be on their way to having a dominant decade in the conference.
Who are the dark horse teams in the SIAC?
While the Savannah State Tigers finished with the best record in the SIAC East, it was the Albany State Rams who represented the division in the 2019 conference championship game.
Despite this, the Rams were picked to finish second in the division behind Savannah State.
The Rams were one of the top defenses in the conference ranking first in scoring defense (12.9 ppg), first in total defense (206.7), second in pass defense (119.4), and third in rushing defense (87.3)
While Lane College is primarily known for its offense, the Dragons have a solid collection of talent on the defensive end led by All-SIAC Preseason selections linebackers Bray McKinzie and Jeffrey Johnson.
Lane’s red zone defense ranked third in the conference in 2019, only allowing scores on 76.5% of possessions. They also had the second-best third-down defense only allowing conversions 29.5% of the time.
The Kentucky State Thorobreds (picked to finish third in the SIAC West division) are another team that has a chance to be a dark horse SIAC championship contender.
The Thorobreds are most known for their run offense, they had an efficient pass game leading the conference in pass efficiency rating (157.9). The Thorobreds had a solid defense ranking second in the conference in points allowed (18.1).
Any of these teams could potentially shock people and make a run at a SIAC championship.
Players to watch in the SIAC in 2021
Tarik McKinzie QB/Anthony Evelyn WR, Lane College
Tarik McKinzie was one of few positives for a Lane Dragons that finished with a 2-4 conference record in the 2019 season. McKinzie ranked third in the SIAC, recording 166.1 passing yards per game with 16 touchdowns to just two interceptions. As a team, the Dragons finished with 22 passing touchdowns and just five interceptions; the best TD-INT ratio in the SIAC. McKinzie’s success can be attributed to his number one receiver Anthony Evelyn.
Evelyn led the SIAC in receiving yards per game (84.4) and receptions per game (5.9) while also ranking second in receiving touchdowns (7). McKinzie and Evelyn are the only quarterback-wide receiver duo to each be selected to the All-SIAC Preseason team with Evelyn being named to the first team and McKinzie to the second team. Although Lane is not expected to be competitive as a team with the SIAC placing them last in their division, its passing offense is sure to be much watched.
Brett Sylve RB, Kentucky State
While D’Angelo Durham was selected the SIAC Preseason Offensive Player of the Year, he was not selected to the All-SIAC Preseason First Team. That distinction went to Santo Dunn of Morehouse and the player to watch Brett Sylve. In 2019, Sylve led the conference in rushing yards per game (108.8), third in rushing touchdowns (9) and third in rushing yards per carry (5.8). As a team, the Thorobreds led the conference in rushing yards per game (274.5) and were second in rushing touchdowns (24). Sylve is certainly someone people should watch as a potential SIAC Offensive Player of the Year award.
Jahseari Patterson DL, Fort Valley State
In the 2019 season, Jahseari Patterson was one of the top freshman defenders in the SIAC. He ranked third in the conference in sacks (6.5), fourth in tackles for loss (15.0) and second in forced fumbles (4). Patterson was one of two players to rank in the top five in all three of these categories alongside his former teammate Demetrius Harris (now in the Canadian Football League). With Harris now gone, Patterson could be primed for a breakout season that could see him put himself in contention for SIAC Defensive Player of the Year.