BOXTOROW’s HBCU Football Year-in Review 2016

Like the rest of college football, it was a case of the haves and have-nots.  We are seeing quite a few bowl games taking place where teams are barely bowl eligible.

Such was the case in HBCU football in an unusual year where every team in the SWAC’s Eastern Division had a losing record, for example.  Six of the 10 teams in the SWAC had losing records.  In the MEAC, only two teams had winning records (North Carolina Central and North Carolina A&T).

In the SIAC, champion Fort Valley State had a 5-6 record.  Four teams had losing records while three teams had .500 records, giving the conference only three teams with winning records.  Only four teams in the CIAA had winning records, while two had .500 records.

Tennessee State and Langston had winning records making a total of 15 of 50 HBCUs who had winning records.

Does that speak to parity or bad football in 2016?  Well, Tuskegee and North Carolina A&T did not win its conference championship but received berths to the NCAA Playoffs.  Winston-Salem State also received a berth to the playoffs.  Remember, in Division II, conference winners do not receiver automatic berths, so in essence, three teams received at-large berths to the playoffs.  An argument could have been made for Virginia State.  Count Grambling and North Carolina Central playing in the Celebration Bowl and you have five teams that made postseason play.

Not bad.

We have already given our grades and now it’s time to take a look back at 2016.

The overall balance of power has definitely shifted to the North after the South dominated for so many years.  While the South has won the championship seven of the last eight years, only Winston-Salem State had a winning record this year.

It was another solid year for Kienus Boulware and the Rams as not only did they return to their winning ways and back-to-back championships, but they also returned to the national playoffs.  After three seasons, Boulware is putting his stamp on the program and a few weeks ago, was rewarded with a three-year contract extension that will keep him in Winston-Salem through 2020.

One of the big surprises of the year – or maybe not – was the play of Virginia State who finished the season 9-2.  Former Alabama State head coach Reggie Barlow, who was coaching high school football last year, took a talented team who was 6-4 last year to the next level.  Their two losses were critical; to Winston-Salem State early in the season and to defending North champion Bowie State towards the latter part of the season.  VSU showed how strong it is when it received a bonus game and beat Tuskegee on the road.

ECSU coach Earnest Wilson was named CIAA Coach of the Year and probably rightfully so, being offered the job in May and taking a not extremely talented team and leading the Vikings to four wins.  But Barlow was deserving of the honor as well.

Lastly, the play of Bowie State quarterback Amir Hall was nothing short of spectacular.  He should be in the conversations of HBCU Player of the Year (North Carolina A&T running back Tarik Cohen received BOXTOROW’s award).  He’s a sophomore, but really only played last year in Bowie State’s playoff loss after injury at the quarterback position.  Essentially a first-year player, Hall completed 62 percent of his passes for 3,596 yards, 30 touchdowns to 15 interceptions.  He also rushed for 266 yards and nine touchdowns.

North Carolina Central listened to everyone talk about North Carolina A&T and running back Tarik Cohen all year.  Despite beating the Aggies the last two seasons to create a shared championship in the MEAC, the Eagles kept quiet.

NCCU made a loud statement on November 19 in Durham when it defeated A&T 42-21 and shut Cohen down.  The Eagles gained their first MEAC crown since 1973 and the first outright championship in the MEAC since 2013.  Player of the Year candidate quarterback Malcolm Bell bounced back from a subpar junior season to complete 60 percent of his passes for 2,431 yards with 17 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.  He also rushed for 575 yards and nine touchdowns.  The Eagles fell to Grambling in the Celebration Bowl 10-9 and finished second in the final BOXTOROW Coaches and Media Polls.

Despite losing to NCCU and not being able to defend its HBCU national championship, the Aggies had a good season.  Good enough to receive an at-large berth to the FCS Playoffs, where they fell to Richmond 39-10, still likely reeling from the loss to the Eagles the week before.  Cohen became the MEAC’s all-time leading rusher and finished the season with 1,588 yards, averaging 7.2 yards per carry and 18 rushing touchdowns.

It was a surprisingly down year in the MEAC, where last year, three teams shared the title and in 2014, an unprecedented five teams shared the crown.  South Carolina State was a team that was expected to fight for the title and finished with a 5-6 record, but had one of the best players in college football in linebacker Darius Leonard, who was named BOXTOROW Willie Davis Defensive Player of the Year after registering 124 tackles (78 solo), 14.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, two interceptions, three pass breakups, four forced fumbles and two blocked kicks.  He recorded 18 tackles against Clemson.

With the SIAC giving more credence to a team’s division record instead of its conference record, it allowed for Kentucky State to face off against Fort Valley State in the championship game instead of Tuskegee facing Albany State.  The result was FVSU winning its first championship since 2002.

Clearly, Tuskegee was the best team in the conference but not on October 22 when KSU held on to defeat the Golden Tigers at home.  Still, TU received an at-large berth to the playoffs and for the third-straight year won a first-round game.

Quarterback Kevin Lacey put up the best numbers of his career, completing 57 percent of his passes for 2,232 yards, 20 touchdowns and eight interceptions.  Despite the numbers, Lacey was inconsistent and found himself on the bench at times.  The Golden Tigers running game wasn’t its usual self.

The defense however was its usual self led by linebackers Osband Thompson and Quavon Taylor who combined for 245 tackles.  Thompson was named BOXTOROW All-American and recorded 137 tackles and 11.5 tackles for loss.

While KSU head coach John L. Smith was named SIAC Coach of the Year, an argument could have been made for Benedict head coach Mike White, whose Tigers went 5-5 this year after an 0-10 record last year and boasted conference MVP running back George Myers, Jr., who rushed for 1,092 yards and five touchdowns, while averaging seven yards per carry.

This year’s SWAC and HBCU national championship team can compare to the Tigers 2005 team with respect to the record, domination for the most part and the aerial attack.  Where this year’s team differs is that it came closer to playing in a true national championship game, defeating NCUU 10-9 in the Celebration Bowl and its running game and defense was better than that 2005 team.

The running combination of Martez Carter and Jestin Kelly produced 1,764 yards on the ground and 18 touchdowns.  Couple that with Ole Miss transfer quarterback DeVante Kincade’s 3,022-yard, 31-touchdown season and Chad Williams’ 90-reception, 1,337-yard, 11-touchdown season and you have an offense that averaged 486 yards per game which is top five in FCS.

But it was the Tigers defense that was arguably more impressive.  In the SWAC where offenses are high-powered, the Tigers only allowed 332 yards per game and more impressively just 16.1 points per game.

GSU head coach Broderick Fobbs has really turned Grambling around.  This was a program that made national headlines after the players boycotted a game in 2013 to bring to light to poor conditions on campus.  He, along with NCCU head coach Jerry Mack, was named BOXTOROW Coach of the Year.

Tennessee State
Like 2013, when things came together at just the right time for Tennessee State and they made the FCS Playoffs and won a first-round game, this was supposed to be the right year for the Tigers.  Perennial power Jacksonville State was not on the schedule and that presented the Tigers an opportunity to win the OVC and a playoff berth.  Two of the Tigers’ three conference losses were two teams who finished below them in the standings (Murray State, Eastern Illinois).  The Tigers were essentially 10 points ways from at least playing in the playoffs.

Quarterback O’Shay Ackerman-Carter was lost in the third game of the season, but veteran Ronald Butler took over and was solid, completing 58 percent of his passes for 2,132 yards with 21 touchdowns and nine interceptions and rushing for 476 yards and six touchdowns.  Wide receiver Patrick Smith had another outstanding season and he and fellow receiver Steven Newbold combined for 102 receptions for 1,750 yards and 19 touchdowns.

While the Tigers put up a lot of yards and points (led the OVC with 32.3 points per game), their defense gave up almost 400 yards per game and 30 points.

While it plays in the OVC, TSU continues to make the argument for HBCU national champion.  The Tigers are 20-4 against HBCU opponents in his seven years as head coach.