A new season brings new goals, objectives, and preseason rankings.
While Fort Valley State head football coach Shawn Gibbs is not particularly focused on those rankings, he does like that his Wildcats were picked fourth in the new SIAC one-division format because it gives his team something to shoot for.
“I want to thank [the polls] for not putting us up high,” Gibbs said of the 2023 preseason rankings. “Picking us fourth behind two teams that we beat head-to-head, that’s good. That gives a chance to go out and prove people wrong, I don’t put a lot of stock into it, but it gives us extra fuel.”
The Wildcats are a team on a mission after an 8-2 regular season and a second-place finish (5-2) in the final season of the Eastern Division. Now that the SIAC has gone to a single division format for football, Gibbs is optimistic the new format will be a good sign for his team and the conference’s playoff hopes.
“I think it’s a year too late for us because if we would’ve got a chance to play in the championship game, we would’ve made the playoffs,” he says. “I think it’s the right way to do things — getting the best two teams to compete for a conference championship. Hopefully, that helps that second-place team get in the playoffs.”
Gibbs is confident his team will be in the hunt, with eight players earning pre-season all-conference honors.
Leading the charge is redshirt sophomore quarterback Kelvin Durham, who threw for 1,994 yards, ran for 258, and accounted for 19 touchdowns for Fort Valley in his first season at the helm in 2022.
“The quarterback position is the most important on any level. Having somebody of Kelvin’s ability gives us a chance to be competitive. We’re looking forward to seeing what he can do,” Gibbs said. “We want him to understand what we need him to do – to be a facilitator, manage the game, protect the football, and get the ball to playmakers in space. We firmly believe he’s capable of doing this.”
Wildcats have players ‘who can go’
On the defensive side of the ball, key returners include defensive lineman Tim Alderman, linebacker Kentrell Lawson and defensive backs Lataj Wright and Landon Austin.
“Lataj played very well as a true freshman last year, and he’ll be one of the better corners in the league this year,” Gibbs said. “We’re six deep at linebacker and got some studs up front as well. Everyone will know who they are shortly. We’ve got some guys who can go.”
While Gibbs is focused on his team’s success this season, he also shared hopes that the SIAC and CIAA can continue to prove their worth among the top DII football leagues.
“Hopefully, the rest of the country can understand how competitive our league is,” he said. “Credit goes to Benedict. The championship goes through Columbia, South Carolina. We’ve got Tuskegee, the winningest program in HBCU football. Savannah State, Central State, that school in southwest Georgia we don’t call by name, Lane – every week in our league, you’ve got to bring it. If you take a week off, anybody can beat you, and that’s a good thing.”
Gibbs also says that when the SIAC and CIAA get their shots in the playoffs, they must make them count.
“Collectively as coaches and players, we want to be recognized, and we know we’re being slept on,” he said. “I do think there’s a stigma of HBCU football that’s unfair. We also have to do our part when we get these invites and be more competitive in the playoffs. Winston-Salem State’s played for the national championship, Bowie State’s won playoff games, and we’ve won as well. “We have to get in the game and start winning, but for that to happen, they’ve got to give us a chance.”
As far as Fort Valley State’s prospects this year, Gibbs wants his team’s record to reflect their effort.
“We want to say we got better every week; we were consistent with our effort and were fundamentally sound,” he explains. “If we can do that, we’ll be where we want to be. Everybody’s goal is to be on top. Our goal is to get better every week. The rest will take care of itself.”