MEAC/SWAC Challenge set to kick off

When the fifth annual MEAC/SWAC Challenge kicks off from the Citrus Bowl Stadium in Orlando, Fla., on Sunday at 2 p.m. ET (ESPN2), there's no doubt this game will feature two of the best teams -- not only in each conference, but in black college football.

South Carolina State and Grambling State will play for bragging rights in HBCU football.

HBCU football on ESPNU

• Jackson State at Mississippi State
Saturday, Sept. 5,
3:30 p.m. ET

Complete TV schedule
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South Carolina State won the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference crown and landed a spot in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs before losing to Appalachian State in the first round last season. Grambling State defeated Jackson State to capture the Southwestern Athletic Conference title, and the Tigers were named the Sheridan Broadcasting Network Black National Champions.

Moreover, each team is ranked in the preseason Sports Network Top 25. South Carolina State is ranked No. 16. Grambling State comes in at No. 25.

Both teams are loaded with great players. Of course, the two top players are South Carolina State running back William Ford and Grambling State defensive end Christian Anthony.

Ford, a preseason All-American, is one of the most explosive running backs in college football. The 2008 MEAC Offensive Player of the Year is on the Walter Payton Award watch list, annually given to the top offensive player in the FCS.

Ford led the conference in rushing last season with 1,499 yards and scored 13 touchdowns. He's gained 3,640 yards in his career and needs just 1,009 yards to become the all-time leading rusher in the MEAC. Alonzo Coleman, the former Hampton star who now plays for the Dallas Cowboys, is the conference's career rushing leader with 4,648 yards.

Ford has performed extremely well running behind all-conference offensive tackle Johnny Culbreath, who knows how to open up those gaping holes for Ford to run through.

The 5-foot-11, 185-pound senior has great speed and can break the long run at any time.
"Will Ford has been our tailback," said South Carolina State head coach Oliver "Buddy" Pough. "He's been about as good a football player as I've coached in the years I've been 'round this game. He's a little bit of everything. He's a hard-nosed guy who's got some speed. He can catch the football some, so he's got pretty good hands. He's a make-them-miss guy. We think he's the total package as far as the running back spot."

Ford averaged 115.3 rushing yards per game last year. The Tigers will have to contain him, and you can bet Pough will keep the ball in his hands.

Anthony, meanwhile, is a real playmaker on defense. That's why he's on the Buck Buchanan Award watch list, given to the most outstanding defensive player in the FCS. The 6-foot-4 senior is one of the best defensive players in the country. Last year, he had eight sacks, 17 tackles for loss and 46 tackles total. In addition, he had eight quarterback hurries, four pass breakups, two interceptions and a forced fumble.

He also knows how to perform on the big stage. He led Grambling State to a 41-9 win over Jackson State in the SWAC championship game last season, finishing with seven tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks for 13 yards and two quarterback hurries. He was named defensive MVP of the game.

"He's one of our better players," said Grambling State head coach Rod Broadway. "Chris is a big-play guy. He's going to make a lot of plays for us during the course of the year. We just need for him to get better fundamentally every snap and learn a little bit more about gap control and do the little things we've asked him to do.

"Christian has grown. He's just a junior. He's been in our program for two years. But he has an opportunity to be an outstanding player before he leaves here, if we can teach him a couple more things as far as playing leverage, gap control, playing with his hands a little more and getting his hips underneath him. He can flat run and make a lot of plays for us. We're looking forward to him doing that for us all season."

The MEAC/SWAC Challenge has produced a lot of NFL players, such as Tarvaris Jackson (Alabama State, Minnesota Vikings), Justin Durant (Hampton, Jacksonville Jaguars), Kendall Langford (Hampton, Miami Dolphins) and Jason Hatcher (Grambling State, Dallas Cowboys). This nationally televised contest has become one of the premiere games showcasing black college football players.

Just like some of their predecessors, Ford and Anthony could be heading down the same path to the NFL.

HBCU notes

• NFL Hall of Famer Kellen Winslow is the keynote speaker of the MEAC/SWAC Challenge kickoff banquet on Sept. 4. Winslow is the athletic director of Central State University, an HBCU in Wilberforce, Ohio.

• The MEAC holds a 3-1 advantage in the MEAC/SWAC Challenge series.

• South Carolina State and Grambling State have met 14 times before the MEAC/SWAC Challenge. The Tigers won the last meeting 31-27 in the 1994 Heritage Bowl. Both teams have played in the MEAC/SWAC Challenge before this year. In fact, South Carolina State played in the inaugural game in 2005 against Alabama State. Grambling State played Hampton in 2006. SC State defeated Alabama State 27-14, while Hampton edged Grambling State, 27-26.

• There are some interesting matchups in HBCU football this weekend. On Saturday, Tennessee State and Alabama A&M will clash in the John Merritt Classic at LP Field in Nashville, Tenn. Norfolk State and Virginia State will play in the Virginia Lottery Labor Day Classic at Dick Price Stadium in Norfolk, Va., and Texas Southern and Prairie View A&M will face each other in the Labor Day Classic at Reliant Stadium in Houston.

• Norfolk State free safety Terrell Whitehead has been added to the Buck Buchanan Award watch list. Whitehead led the Spartans and ranked seventh in the MEAC with 83 tackles last year. He had the second-most passes defended (15) of any conference player, with four interceptions and 11 pass deflections. His four interceptions gave him 13 for his career and tied for the fourth-most in the league last year. Whitehead was the preseason MEAC Defensive Player of the Year.

• W.C. Gorden, the winningest coach in Jackson State football history, will be inducted into the Jackson State Hall of Fame on Sept. 18. Gorden had a marvelous 15-year head-coaching career. He led the Tigers to eight SWAC titles, made nine trips to the NCAA playoffs and won a SWAC-record 28 consecutive conference games from 1985 to '89. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame last year.

• Florida A&M return specialist LeRoy Vann is one of the most exciting players in the nation. Vann, a 5-9, 182-pounder, shattered school, conference and NCAA records for kick returns last year, picking up 1,583 combined yards (462 on punts, 1,121 on kickoffs), which is No. 1 all-time in the category among BCS or FCS players in a single season.
He ran back six kicks for TDs, which tied an NCAA record for combined kick returns for touchdowns.

Donald Hunt is a columnist for The Philadelphia Tribune. You can reach him at dhunt37261@aol.com.