After sitting out a full year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the long-awaited return of CIAA football is almost upon us.
Teams will be looking to make a statement in what will be the first football season in the 2020s.
The Winston-Salem State Rams were the most accomplished team in the conference in the 2010s taking home four CIAA championships (2011, 2012, 2015, 2016) in the decade.
By the end of the decade, however, it was the Bowie State Bulldogs who staked their claim for being the most dominant team in the CIAA, appearing in four of the final five CIAA championship games winning the final two in 2018 and 2019.
The Virginia State Trojans contributed two conference championships coming in 2014 and 2017. The last remaining CIAA championship came from the Shaw Bears who started off the decade winning the title (the 2013 game was canceled).
Who will take the CIAA crown in the first full season of the 2020s? Let’s take a deep dive into the 2021 CIAA football season.
Will the Bowie State Bulldogs’ reign of dominance continue?
In the 2019 season, the Bulldogs finished with their first undefeated regular season in school history with a 10-0 overall record and a 7-0 conference record. This upcoming season, the Bulldogs will look to win their third straight CIAA championship becoming the first team to do so since former CIAA member Hampton did it from 1992-1994.
The Bulldogs come into this season the overwhelming favorites led by reigning CIAA Offensive Player of the Year quarterback Ja’rome Johnson and CIAA Defensive Player of the Year defensive back Demetri Morsell each returning to the team.
They were the first team to have a player win CIAA Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season since the Winston-Salem State Rams in 2012.
The Bulldogs made their name on the defensive end with a loaded team from top to bottom. They led the conference in points allowed (15.6) and interceptions (25) while ranking second in sacks (44) as well as tying for the third-fewest total touchdowns allowed (24) and the third-fewest passing touchdowns allowed (13).
Their secondary, along with Morsell, will also feature Tevin Singleton and Raymond Boone. These three players combined for 17 of their team’s 25 interceptions which were still more interceptions than any other CIAA team.
On the defensive line, they are led by one of the best linemen in all of Division II football in Joshua Pryor. Pryor had a dominant 2019 season finishing with a CIAA leading 13.0 sacks and 25.0 tackles for loss.
The defensive line for the Bulldogs will be extremely different from last season, as many of their top players including Jason Rogers, James Dumas, Brian Smith and Oluwaleke Ajenifuja are no longer with the team.
They will, however, boast Defensive Rookie of the Year honoree Jonathan Ross on their defensive line who recorded 45 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, and 5.0 sacks as a freshman.
Meanwhile, on offense, the Bulldogs were just as dominant leading the conference in points per game (39.7). In addition, they had the most total touchdowns (56), the most passing touchdowns (28) and the second-most rushing touchdowns (28).
Johnson was not just the leading passer for the Bulldogs recording 1,860 passing yards and 12 touchdowns, but he was also their leading rusher finishing with 996 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. He tied for the most passing touchdowns and tied for the third-most rushing touchdowns in the CIAA.
Like the defense, the Bulldogs will also see changes to their offenses as their two leading receivers DuShon David and Geordan Clark have each graduated.
It will be interesting to see how the Bulldogs recover their losses in an effort to make history continuing their dominance in the CIAA.
Will the Fayetteville State Broncos finally get over the hump?
While the Winston-Salem State Rams and the Bowie State Bulldogs each had a run of dominance in the CIAA, one team that had a chance of a run that was not quite able to get over the hump was the Fayetteville State Broncos.
Fayetteville State was very solid at the beginning of the 2010s, finishing with a .500 conference record in five of the first six seasons.
In 2017, the Broncos began to turn a corner becoming a contender in the conference making their first of three straight CIAA championship games. They were unfortunately unsuccessful in all three appearances against the Virginia State Trojans in 2017 and the Bowie State Bulldogs in 2018 and 2019.
The key to Fayetteville State’s success has come from their offense particularly in their running game. Last season, they recorded the third-most total offensive touchdowns (48), the third-most rushing touchdowns (27), and the third-highest scoring average (34.7).
Their offense was led by Stevie Green who has now since graduated. He led the conference in rushing touchdowns (14) and was fourth in rushing yards per game (102.2). He also accounted for almost half of the team’s total rushing touchdowns.
Although the Broncos’ passing offense was not as effective as their run game, they did have success producing the highest completion percentage (60.9) and the second-most total completions (171).
A lot of their success on offense came as a result of having one of the best offensive lines in the conference that allowed the fewest sacks (14) of any team last season.
On defense, Fayetteville State allowed the lowest pass efficiency rating (97.5), the second-fewest passing yards per game 140.6 and the second-lowest completion percentage (46.5%).
Only time will tell if the Broncos are able to not only able to make a fourth straight CIAA championship appearance but finally get over the hump and secure their first conference title since 2009.
Virginia State Trojans or Virginia Union Panthers?
While the Bowie State Bulldogs are the favorite to make it out of the CIAA, it will not be easy, as they are always challenged by their two divisional rivals the Virginia State Trojans and the Virginia Union Panthers.
Virginia State most notably kept the Bulldogs from five straight CIAA championships in 2017 defeating them 47-35 in a head-to-head regular-season matchup before going on to claim the conference title.
Virginia State was arguably the best defensive team in the CIAA in the 2019 season. They led the CIAA in sacks (50) with four players ranking in the top 10 individually in that category.
The Trojans allowed the fewest total offensive yards (247.5), the second-fewest offensive touchdowns (21), and the fewest rushing touchdowns (6). They also allowed the fewest first downs per game (14.6) and they allowed the lowest third-down conversion percentage (25.7%).
Their defense is led by returning All-CIAA defensive lineman Javon Frazier. Frazier finished third in sacks (10), third in tackles for loss (18.0) and tied for the third-most forced fumbles (2).
Along with Frazier, the Trojans defensive line also features Kolby Hunter who recorded 5.0 sacks and 10.0 tackles for loss along with Kwabe Boateng. At linebacker, they have Zion Johnson who led the team in tackles.
On offense, they had the best running game in the conference, leading in rushing touchdowns (31) while finishing second in rushing yards per game (228.4). The Trojans run game was not dependent on one individual with four different players recording at least five rushing touchdowns.
The Trojans were the only team to have two players rank in the top 10 in rushing touchdowns and were one of two teams to have multiple players score at least five rushing touchdowns (Chowan).
Only one of the four players that scored five rushing touchdowns last season is no longer with the team in quarterback Cordelral Cook.
While the Virginia Union Panthers did not make a CIAA championship appearance in the 2010s, they were one of the most consistent teams in the conference all decade.
Since 2014, the Panthers have finished with a combined overall record of 41-20 and a 29-10 conference record. Eight of their 10 conference losses in that time came against Bowie State and Virginia State respectively.
Last season, they had one of the best passing offenses in the CIAA led by quarterback Khalid Morris. Morris tied for the most passing touchdowns in the conference while leading in passing yards per game (208.0).
A lot of Morris’ success came throwing to his favorite target Charles Hall. Hall led the CIAA in yards per reception (25.9) while finishing second in receiving yards per game (85.5) and tied for the most receiving touchdowns (10).
The Panthers had the best kicker in the CIAA in Jefferson Souza who led the conference in field percentage connecting on 15-of-16 attempts with his longest being 49 yards.
Virginia Union will be without many of their top players on defense including defensive backs Elijah Johnson and Quantaye Battle who were two of their leaders in passes defended last season. In addition, they will be without top defensive linemen Tremayne Sweat and Sterling Hammond.
Remaining with the team, however, is defensive lineman Xzavier Hines who led the team in sacks (6.0), tied for the most forced fumbles (2) and was second in tackles for loss (10.0). They also have a secondary that includes Bryan Epps and Tovias Parker.
Who will be Fayetteville State’s biggest test in the CIAA Southern Division?
As previously mentioned, prior to Fayetteville State making three straight unsuccessful CIAA championship game appearances, it was the Winston-Salem State Rams who dominated not just the Southern division but the conference as a whole.
While the Rams ended the decade with their only losing season finishing 4-6 overall and 3-4 in conference, there were some redeeming qualities that could see them have success in the upcoming year.
The Rams were one of the top defensive teams in the CIAA leading the conference in total touchdowns allowed (20), passing yards per game allowed (131.8), and passing touchdowns allowed (9) while also finishing second in rushing touchdowns allowed (10).
Unfortunately, the Rams will be without their leader in the secondary Daryus Skinner who recorded for seven of his team’s 16 interceptions last season.
On the other hand, they will have a tandem of All-CIAA Preseason linebackers Kalen Allen and Ta’Shaun Taylor as well as defensive back Joshua Flowers.
Last season, the Shaw Bears came the closest to upending the Bowie State Bulldogs’ undefeated regular season losing a close game that saw them leading by two possessions with three minutes remaining in the final quarter.
The Bears still had a chance to clinch a spot in the CIAA championships but lost another close game to Fayetteville State, knocking them out of contention. They finished with an overall record above .500 for the first time since 2013.
This came despite playing without 2018 CIAA Defensive Player of the Year linebacker Devon Hunt who suffered a season-ending injury after just three games. Fortunately enough, Hunt was medically redshirted making him eligible to play this season.
He will be featured on a defense headlined by CIAA Defensive Player of the Year candidate defensive lineman Dast Sturkie as well as defensive back duo Jaleel Scruggins and Kevin Sherman.
Last season, the Johnson C. Smith Golden Bulls had the best special teams in the CIAA scoring a conference-high five return touchdowns. This included three punt return touchdowns and two kick return touchdowns.
The Golden Bulls were the only team to score on a punt and kick return. While their leading punt returner Braxton Gambrell is no longer with the team, they do still have their top kick returner Damon Rice who contributed two kick return touchdowns for the team.
These are the teams that have the best shot of keeping the Fayetteville State Broncos from making a fourth straight CIAA championship appearance.