After navigating the hurdles of a pandemic that forced some teams to play in the spring while others opted out entirely, HBCU football returns this autumn. Players, fans, students, and alumni have been enthralled by the long-awaited return to a conventional schedule as they prepare for an exciting season.

As the season approaches, here are six preseason topics to keep an eye on.

6 storylines to watch in the 2021 HBCU football season

1. How does the MEAC respond after losing three of its premier teams?

The MEAC has lost three clubs since we last saw the conference play a full season. In the recent year, Bethune-Cookman (SWAC), Florida A&M (SWAC), and North Carolina A&T (Big South) have all formally departed the conference. They bring with them illustrious histories, fierce rivalries, and all but two MEAC titles since 2010.

The MEAC still has six teams, but there are many doubts about the future of the once-powerful league. Will the MEAC’s rich legacy be carried by these six teams alone in 2021, or will the loss of three teams stand out?

2. How do the MEAC defectors fit into their new conferences?

When Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman announced their intentions to join the SWAC, the issue was immediately raised: Could these schools compete in the SWAC’s grueling schedule? In the SWAC, there isn’t a week when the Rattlers or Wildcats can relax since nearly every conference opponent has a genuine chance to win the league title.

Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman, as the new kids on the block, will undoubtedly be targeted. When you factor in the cultural differences between the MEAC and the SWAC, these two football schools have a lot to deal with.

In other news, North Carolina A&T is the second historically black college to join the Big South, following Hampton in 2018. Hampton finished 1-5 in conference and 5-7 overall in its debut year of conference play.

North Carolina A&T has won four of the past five Celebration Bowls, so a repeat season would be disappointing. The Aggies will want to continue their winning ways in their new league, but matchups against teams like preseason No. 13 Monmouth will make it difficult.

3. Was Alabama A&M’s SWAC championship a product of a shortened season?

Alabama A&M earned its first SWAC championship since 2006 last spring. The championship occurred, however, in the midst of a pandemic-shortened season that included postponements and did not include two-time reigning champion Alcorn State.

The Bulldogs ended 4-3 in conference play in 2019, causing some to speculate that the spring 2021 victory was a result of unusual circumstances.

Despite any reservations, Alabama A&M will start the season as a favorite to win the SWAC for the second consecutive year. The Bulldogs, led by preseason Walter Payton Award contender quarterback Aqeel Glass, will try to disprove the skeptics.

4. How does a year off impact Alcorn State?

Alcorn State was the two-time defending SWAC champion as they took the field in the 2019 Celebration Bowl. Felix Harper, the quarterback for the Atlanta Braves, was a finalist for the 2019 Walter Payton Award.

Some may have forgotten about Alcorn State after opting out of the spring season in 2021. The Braves return to the SWAC stage after a year off with a lot to prove.

With the MEAC/SWAC Challenge versus North Carolina Central to kick off the season, Alcorn State will be able to debunk or prove its worth on a national scale early on.

5. Can Southern’s Jordan Lewis add his name to the history books?

Only one player in FCS football history has earned the Buck Buchanan Award twice as the best defensive player: Appalachian State’s Dexter Coakley (1995-96). Jordan Lewis, the current prize recipient, will have the opportunity to join that list in the autumn of 2021.

Lewis is back at Southern after leading the FCS in sacks (10.5) and tackles for loss (15) in the spring. If the defensive end can come close to matching these numbers, he has a chance to add to his collection of hardware.

6. How does Jackson State perform with a complete offseason and a new influx of talent?

Jackson State is one of the more perplexing HBCU football teams heading into the season. The program has frequently made national news since acquiring head coach Deion Sanders.

The Tigers finished 4-3 last spring. They’ll have a highly rated recruiting class with big-name recruits and transfers aplenty on the squad this autumn. Most significantly, they’ll have Deion Sanders’ son, Shedeur Sanders, start his NCAA career.

The Tigers have probably the best team in the SWAC on paper. Jackson State’s success this fall will be determined by how soon this talent gels and produces.

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