The HBCU football season kicks off Saturday with a pair of games with the high profile game seeing North Carolina Central face Alcorn State in the annual MEAC/SWAC Challenge.
This will be both team’s first game since 2019 after the programs opted out of the 2021 spring season.
Alcorn State is coming off a 2019 season in which they finished 9-3 overall and 6-1 in conference play (not including the Celebration Bowl) securing their second straight SWAC championship.
Meanwhile, North Carolina Central finished the 2019 season 4-8 overall and 3-5 in the conference. It was with the second straight season finishing below .500. They had not finished consecutive seasons below .500 since joining the MEAC in 2011.
This will be the first matchup between the Eagles and Braves since 1976 when the MEAC was just in its sixth season.
If history is any indication, North Carolina Central should be the favorites, as the MEAC holds a 10-4 record in the game’s history. However, the last time the Eagles played in a MEAC/SWAC Challenge, it did not go well for them losing 40-24 to Prairie View in 2018.
Alcorn State played in the MEAC/SWAC Challenge in 2016 against Bethune-Cookman but the game was canceled due to weather.
Braves offense vs Eagles defense
This game will be a matchup primarily based on the Alcorn State offense against the North Carolina Central defense.
Alcorn State tied for the most total touchdowns in the SWAC (57) and ranked third in points per game (33.6). Their offense is led by 2019 SWAC Offensive Player of the Year quarterback Felix Harper.
Harper led the SWAC in passing touchdowns (33) and was second in passing yards per game (246.2) his last time out. He was one of only two SWAC quarterbacks to record more than 30 passing touchdowns and less than 10 interceptions in any season in the last decade.
The Braves will be without two of their three leading receivers in Chris Blair and Raidarious Anderson who have each graduated. They will, however, go in with LeCharles Pringle who led the SWAC with 14 touchdowns in 2019.
Elsewhere, the Braves also had a solid run game led by Niko Duffey who finished with the fifth-most rushing yards in the SWAC.
Meanwhile, the North Carolina Central defense was one of the best in the MEAC in defending the pass. They finished second in interceptions (14) and second in sacks (29). They also had the third-best third-down defense and the best fourth-down defense in the conference.
Unfortunately, the Eagles defense has lost many members of their 2019 team, including their leading corner Bryan Mills (recently signed with the New Orleans Saints), and three of their four sacks leaders.
Despite this, they still have a loaded defense including defensive backs Justin Nicholson, Stephen Stokes and Manny Smith. Their defensive line consists of Jessie Malit, Chuck Manning and Miles Turmon, as well as linebacker Patrick Connor.
Braves defense vs Eagles offense
While the debate of the Braves’ offense versus the Eagles’ defense is actually competitive, the same could not be said on the other side of the spectrum.
The Braves actually had a very good defense ranking leading the SWAC in total yards allowed (354.3), led in interceptions (21) and were second in points allowed (23.1) during its last full season of play.
However, like the Eagles, a significant number of players from the Braves defense are no longer with the team, including their two leaders in interceptions Qwynnterrio Cole (transferred to Louisville) and Taurence Wilson. They will also be without All-American linebacker Solomon Muhammad.
Despite shortages on defense, they will see a good number of their defense return, including sacks leaders Malik Holbert and Jacorian Wren as well as defensive backs Juwan Taylor and Keyron Kinsler.
In contrast, the Eagles had one of the worst offenses in the MEAC in 2019. They ranked at the bottom of the conference in total touchdowns (24), and had the second-lowest scoring average (17.5) including the second-fewest rushing touchdowns (11).
Not only did they have the worst third and fourth down offense in the conference, but they committed the second-most penalties.
The one positive on offense is running back Isaiah Totten who was voted to the All-MEAC Preseason first team and the Black College Football Player of the Year award watch list.
This game could depend on who has the better start. Both teams have been out since 2019 and will be looking to build chemistry.
Alcorn State is likely the overwhelming favorite to win this game and for good reason. They have the better overall team on offense and defense and play well in a more competitive conference.
However, if the Eagles’ defense is able to make their mark on the game limiting the Braves’ offense, they could pull off the upset.
In the end, the Eagles do not have enough on the offensive end to keep up with the Braves and will have a tough time stopping the Alcorn State offense.
Winner: Alcorn State Braves