It doesn’t take Deion Sanders to keep the Southwestern Athletic Conference one of the most entertaining and fascinating leagues in FCS college football.

With Coach Prime off to Colorado, the Tigers aren’t even the preseason favorite in the East Division, let alone the entire SWAC, although they have gone unbeaten while winning each of the last two conference championships.

In the West Division, it’s not who is in the title race, it’s more who isn’t? Basically, it’s only Arkansas-Pine Bluff among that half of the 12-team SWAC.

Here’s a preview of the upcoming SWAC season:

Predicted Order of Finish

East Division

1. Florida A&M (2022 Season: 9-2, 7-1) – FAMU has gone 7-1 in conference each of the past two seasons, so their losses to Jackson State have been the difference in the East Division races. Their Sept. 3 matchup could mean everything again (and it’s a freak-out factor for the Rattlers). Coach Willie Simmons and his squad feel “primed,” if you will, about getting over the hump, boasting a conference-high seven players on the SWAC preseason team, including quarterback Jeremy Moussa, the preseason offensive player of the year. Linebacker Isaiah Major (83 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss) figures to build off a  banner junior season, and the offensive line and secondary are particularly strong.

2. Jackson State (12-1, 8-0) – If the rest of the SWAC did something to motivate a Tigers program that has 21 straight wins (one is a forfeit) against conference opponents, it was giving them just one player out of 52 selections on the conference’s preseason team – first-team tight end DJ Stevens. New coach T.C. Taylor has a reworked lineup, likely with transfer QB Jason Brown (3,084 passing yards, 28 touchdowns at Saint Francis in 2019) behind center to replace the departed Shedeur Sanders. Defensive lineman Devonta Davis is a key returnee after the Tigers ranked first in the nation in yards allowed per game (252.4) and second in points allowed per game (13.5).

3. Alabama State (6-5, 4-4) – The Hornets often played in tight, lower-scoring games last season, and this year’s defense figures to hold up its end again behind linebacker Colton Adams (FCS-high 11.6 tackles per game) and an Adrian Maddox-led secondary. While the offensive skills positions will have a new look, QB Dematrius Davis can target wide receiver Kisean Johnson again.    

4. Alabama A&M (4-7, 4-4) – Although the Bulldogs finished with their first losing record in coach Connell Maynor’s five seasons, running back Donovan Eaglin became a workhorse following their 0-4 start. He rushed for 100+ yards in five of the final seven games en route to finishing with 873 on the season and seven total TDs. Defensive end Zareon Hayes gets into the backfield, totaling 16.5 TFLs.

5. Bethune-Cookman (2-9, 2-6) – After a troubled hiring of Pro Football Hall-of-Famer Ed Reed as head coach last winter, the Wildcats went with alum Raymond Woodie Jr., a well-traveled FBS assistant who was at FAU the last three seasons. He will try to reverse the former MEAC power’s early struggles in the SWAC (back-to-back 2-9 and 2-6). Cornerback Omari Hill-Robinson, who has two straight seasons with four interceptions, and returner Darnell Deas were on the SWAC preseason first team.

6. Mississippi Valley State (2-9, 2-6) – New coach Kendrick Wade, an alum, went heavy on junior college transfers to try to get his first season on track. Defensive backs Brandon Williams and Caleb Canada followed Wade to MVSU from Delta State, where he was the receivers coach. Quarterback Jamari Jones passed for eight TDs a year ago, but the offensive line has to improve after allowing 35 sacks. Prairie View A&M is 11-5 in conference the last two seasons, but two of the losses are to MVSU.

West Division

1. Southern (7-5, 5-3) – The Jaguars usually have one of the stronger defenses in the SWAC, and it shouldn’t change with the likes of defensive linemen Tahj Brown (6.5 sacks) and Ckelby Givens (5.5 sacks), linebacker Jalan Campbell (82 tackles, 14 TFLs) and defensive back Jordan Carter (four takeaways) returning. Harold Blood is the defending West Division champ’s new starting quarterback, while former Alabama A&M running back Gary Quarles Jr. (1,900 rushing yards, 49 receptions, 19 total TDs in 40 career games) is a highly productive addition.

2. Prairie View A&M (6-5, 5-3) – The Panthers have outperformed the SWAC preseason poll each of the last two seasons. Good luck to opponents trying to stop what was SWAC’s No. 1 rushing attack last season: veteran QB Trazon Connley rushed for 661 yards and 13 TDs, running back Ahmad Antoine went for 627 yards and six, and grad transfer Caleb Johnson was 2,116 and 13 during his Mississippi Valley State career. Another grad transfer, wide receiver/returner Brian Jenkins Jr. (Alabama A&M), will aid Connley in the passing game. Keyshawn Johnson headlines a solid linebackers unit.


3. Alcorn State (5-6, 4-4) – Sitting out the pandemic-delayed 2020 FCS season appears to have affected the Braves, who have yet to return to the level of their six straight West Division championships from 2014-19. Running back Jarveon Howard rushed for a conference-high 1,275 yards plus 12 TDs in his first season with the Braves, and again works behind standout offensive linemen Will Ready and T.J. Yarbrough. Too often the Braves were slow starters, scoring just 30 points in the first quarter and 33 in the third quarter. On defense, linebacker Terreance Ellis (team-high 92 tackles) and defensive end Malachi Bailey (9.5 sacks) are the top returnees.

4. Texas Southern (5-6, 4-4) – The Tigers had a breakout season under coach Clarence McKinney and can’t be discounted in the deep West Division race. Dual-threat quarterback Andrew Body (5,236 total yards of offense, 37 total TDs in two seasons) is among the best in the conference, and he’s surrounded by veterans in the skills position, including SWAC preseason first-team wide receiver Derek Morton. The defense ranked 11th in the conference against the run, allowing nearly 209 yards per outing.

5. Grambling State (3-8, 2-6) – The G-Men have been below .500 both overall and in the SWAC each of the last two years after sitting out the COVID season. They have to improve defensively after allowing over 30 points seven times and 33 on average, but it’s expected in coach Hue Jackson’s second season with defensive end Sundiata Anderson, a 2024 NFL prospect and the SWAC’s preseason defensive player of the year, and linebacker Lewis Matthews, who had a team-high 103 tackles.

6. Arkansas-Pine Bluff (3-8, 1-7) – UAPB was the lone SWAC team below Texas Southern against the run, allowing 244.3 yards per game and 30 TDs on the ground. Linebacker Rico Dozier (team highs with 78 tackles and 11 TFLs) and defensive end Anas Luqman will be in the middle of any defensive improvement under new coach Alonzo Hampton. The offense is starting over after longtime quarterback Skyler Perry’s graduation and running back Kayvon Britten’s transfer to Tarleton (he rushed for 1,063 yards and 16 TDs a year ago).

(A look back at SWAC media day: It’s about to get wild)

How the Conference Predicted the Race

Five Players to Watch

Colton Adams, LB, Alabama State (Buck Buchanan Award preseason nominee) – Matching his No. 1 jersey, the middle linebacker ranked first in the FCS in tackles per game (11.6), posting 128 overall.

Sundiata Anderson, DE, Grambling State (Buck Buchanan Award preseason nominee) – Athletic edge rusher didn’t have a full season until 2022, when he broke out with 50 tackles, 12.5 TFLs and seven sacks in 10 games.

Andrew Body, QB, Texas Southern – Body damages defenses with his running ability, but the Tigers are 5-2 when he passes for two or more touchdowns.

Jarveon Howard, RB, Alcorn State (Walter Payton Award preseason nominee) – Syracuse transfer was a workhorse in his first season at Alcorn with 20+ carries in 10 of his 11 games and an FCS-high 250 overall.

Jeremy Moussa, QB, Florida A&M – Pocket passer passed for 2,732 yards and 21 TDs after making a transfer to FAMU.

Five Must-See Matchups

1. Grambling State vs. Southern in New Orleans (Nov. 25) – The Bayou Classic portion (since 1974) of this spirited rivalry turns 50, with Southern up 25-24 after last year’s 34-17 win over Grambling State before 62,337 at the Caesars Superdome. The Jaguars also lead the all-time series 40-34.

(The Bayou Classic ranks among the best games of the 2023 FCS season)

2. Florida A&M vs. Jackson State in Miami (Sept. 3) 

3. Alabama A&M vs. Alabama State in Birmingham, Alabama (Oct. 28)

4. Southern at Alcorn State (Nov. 4)

5. Florida A&M at Southern (Oct. 7)

FBS Matchups

A SWAC program hasn’t posted an FBS win since coach Eddie Robinson led Grambling State past Oregon State 23-6 on Sept. 28, 1985 in Shreveport, Louisiana.

This season’s 11 SWAC matchups against FBS programs:

Alabama A&M: Vanderbilt (Sept. 2); Alcorn State: Southern Miss (Sept. 2); Arkansas-Pine Bluff: Tulsa (Aug. 31); Bethune-Cookman: Memphis (Sept. 2) and Miami-Florida (Sept. 14); Florida A&M: USF (Sept. 9); Grambling State: LSU (Sept. 9); Jackson State: Texas State (Sept. 16); Prairie View A&M: SMU (Sept. 16); Texas Southern: Toledo (Sept. 9) and Rice (Sept. 16)

Fast Fact

The SWAC has led all FCS conferences in attendance average in 44 of the Division I subdivision’s first 45 seasons. Last season, the Magic City Classic between Alabama A&M and Alabama State drew the largest attendance (67,532 at Legion Field in Birmingham) and Jackson State’s five-game home average (44,390) was a single-season record for the subdivision.