There’s little margin for error in the MEAC schedule considering each team plays only five conference games, but North Carolina Central made it all work in a glorious 2022 season.
The Eagles rebounded from an early conference loss at South Carolina State to rally for a share of its first championship since 2016 with Howard and the MEAC bid to the Celebration Bowl, where they posted an overtime upset of SWAC champ Jackson State to secure the HBCU national championship.
That made it six MEAC wins out of seven Celebration Bowls, something the conference seeks again in 2023 with NCCU and Howard seemingly at the front of the title picture. This year’s HBCU season-ending bowl will be held on Dec. 16 in Atlanta.
Here’s a preview of the upcoming MEAC season:
Predicted Order of Finish
*-Celebration Bowl Qualifier (With 2022 Record)
1. *North Carolina Central (10-2, 4-1; preseason No. 19 ranking) – Another solid nonconference schedule will prepare coach Trei Oliver’s squad for the season-ending stretch of five MEAC games. The Eagles are the only FCS team to be returning its conference’s 2022 offensive (quarterback Darius Richard) and defensive (cornerback Khalil Baker) players of the year. Ten other players who earned a form of All-MEAC honors are among the 15 returning starters, including running back Latrell Collier (979 yards, nine touchdowns) and wide receiver Devin Smith (38 receptions, 509 yards, six TDs) on the MEAC’s top-ranked offense.
2. Howard (5-6, 4-1) – The Bison had won the MEAC title only previously in 1993 before last year’s co-championship. They gained one more selection on the conference’s preseason team than NCCU, 14 to 13. None is bigger – yeah, literally – than 6-foot-8, 362-pound offensive tackle Anim Dankwah, a 2024 NFL Draft prospect. Quinton Williams (1,884 passing yards, 20 total TDs) and a host of offensive weapons, including running back Jarrett Hunter (867 scrimmage yards, seven TDs), return from a much-improved offense last season. Senior safety Kenny Gallop Jr. (89 tackles, 58 solos) fuels the defense.
(Rewind to MEAC football media day: Deeper look at the Howard Bison)
3. South Carolina State (3-8, 1-4) – The 2021 MEAC and Celebration Bowl champs returned a veteran team last season, but it collapsed with a four-game losing streak after opening conference play with a win over NCCU. Coach Buddy Pough has 146 career wins entering his 22nd season. The Bulldogs are always strong in the trenches, and their duo of defensive ends, Jeblonski Green Jr. and Patrick Godbolt, is unmatched across the conference. They’ll need more of the 2021 version of veteran QB Corey Fields than last year’s career-low 45.2 completion percentage. SCSU has an early season opener, facing Jackson State in the MEAC-SWAC Challenge on Aug. 26 in Atlanta.
4. Delaware State (5-6, 2-3) – That former coach Rod Milstead led consecutive 5-6 records drew praise, so his firing after last season was a surprise. New coach Lee Hull is well-versed in the MEAC, having led Morgan State to a 2014 co-title and serving as Howard’s offensive coordinator last year. Quarterback C.J. Henry and running back Marquis Gillis, the 2022 MEAC offensive rookie of the year, will work again behind O-linemen Sam Pearson and Isaiah Cook. The defense ranked No. 1 in the conference, and linebacker Maurio Goings totaled 10 TFLs among his 47 stops.
5. Morgan State (4-7, 2-3) – The offense is replacing 2022 MEAC rushing champion Alfonzo Graham, but would be helped by a full season out of QB Carson Baker, who was sidelined after seven games. The Bears led the conference with 29 sacks, and their defensive veterans include linebackers Lawrence Richardson and Erick Hunter (tied for team high with 77 tackles), D-end Elijah Williams (19 TFLs, nine sacks) and cornerback Jae’Veyon Morton (three interceptions, 10 pass breakups). Keith Jenkins Jr. is one of the FCS‘ best kick returners.
6. Norfolk State (2-9, 2-3) – The two wins in coach Dawson Odums’ second season were the Spartans’ fewest since they finished 1-8 in 2004. Incumbent QB Otto Kuhns has been in a preseason competition for the starting job. Leading rusher Jordin Lennon returns, but the transfer loss of leading receiver Da’Quan Felton is a big loss. The defense was by-far the lowest-ranked in the MEAC last season, so defensive backs Joseph White and R.J. Cole and D-lineman Anthony Blume seek to lead a reversal.
How the Conference Predicted the Race
Five Players to Watch
Khalil Baker, CB, North Carolina Central (Buck Buchanan Award preseason nominee) – Defensive MVP of the Celebration Bowl win led the Eagles with 61 tackles and was second in the MEAC with four interceptions.
Anin Dankwah, OT, Howard – Massive O-lineman helped Howard to a share of the MEAC title and No. 2 rankings in the conference to NCCU in rushing, passing, total offense and scoring.
Jeblonski Green Jr., DE, South Carolina State – A healthier season would return Green to his 2021 level (19.5 tackles for loss).
Patrick Godbolt, DE/LB, South Carolina State (Buck Buchanan Award preseason nominee) – Has racked up 22 TFLs and 7.5 sacks over the last two seasons.
Davius Richard, QB, North Carolina Central (Walter Payton Award preseason nominee) – Offensive MVP of the Celebration Bowl win led the MEAC in passing yards (2,661), total offense (3,449), passing TDs (25) and rushing TDs (15).
(Four from MEAC selected to Stats Perform FCS Preseason All-America Team)
Five Must-See Matchups
1. North Carolina Central at Howard (Nov. 11) – NCCU’s 50-21 win over its fellow MEAC co-champ won the tiebreaker for last year’s bid to the Celebration Bowl.
2. South Carolina State at North Carolina Central (Oct. 26)
3. Howard at South Carolina State (Nov. 4)
4. North Carolina Central at Morgan State (Oct. 19)
5. South Carolina State at Delaware State (Oct. 21)
Morgan State, Norfolk State, North Carolina Central and South Carolina State still seek their first win over an FBS opponent.
This season’s nine MEAC matchups against FBS programs:
Delaware State: Army (Sept. 9) and Miami-Ohio (Sept. 23); Howard: Eastern Michigan (Sept. 1) and Northwestern (Oct. 7); Morgan State: Akron (Sept. 9); North Carolina Central: UCLA (Sept. 16); Norfolk State: Temple (Sept. 16); South Carolina State: Charlotte (Sept. 2) and Georgia Tech (Sept. 9)
The MEAC was the not the conference for regular nailbiters last season. Out of 15 conference matchups, the winning margin was 21+ points eight times, with two other games decided by 14+ points.