No avoiding Sanders will overshadow SWAC season
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By CRAIG HALEY
(Stats Perform) - If Alabama A&M coach Connell Maynor had looked up to his TV, he might have seen the SWAC's newest coach commanding the spotlight.
Actually, it happens everywhere with Deion Sanders.
"Of course, Jackson (State) is getting most of the attention right now," Maynor said during the first of the SWAC's two virtual media days on Wednesday. "I mean, every commercial I see, I see Deion eating subs, in the jacuzzi, out the window, on top of the car. I think it's great because every time they show him, it brings up the SWAC."
Jackson State's hiring of the 53-year-old Pro and College Football Hall of Famer for his first head coaching job is as big as they come on the FCS level. It may be company line for everybody from Montgomery, Alabama, to Grambling, Louisiana, to Prairie View, Texas, and points in between to be crediting the national attention created by Sanders.
But will it get old at the nine other campuses?
Coach Prime, as Sanders prefers, tends to hold court wherever he goes, and he's surely going to continue overshadowing everybody else in the conference. If Jackson State, which last had a winning record in 2013, wins big during the upcoming spring season, he'll be the story. If Jackson State doesn't win big, he'll also be the story considering all the excitement and expectations that have built around the program for nearly four months.
"We're measured by wins and losses, that's how we're measured, so that's what it's about," Sanders said. "As long as they keep score, we gotta win. When they stop keeping score, it won't be a problem. But they keep score; we gotta win."
Jackson State had a young nucleus while going 4-8 in the 2019 season, led by linebacker and SWAC defensive player of the year Keonte Hampton, who, not surprisingly, enters his junior season with the same preseason honor. Add in Sanders' sensational first recruiting class, which includes 12 FBS transfers, and there's reason beyond his flamboyant style for him to not downplay expectations.
Of course, the East Division has the makings of one of its more competitive seasons. Alcorn State has captured the last six division titles and the two most recent conference titles, and though it returns reigning SWAC offensive player of the year Felix Harper behind center, it lost over half its starting lineup after beating Southern in the 2019 conference championship game and losing to North Carolina A&T in the Celebration Bowl. Meanwhile, Alabama A&M, which had the most SWAC preseason selections with nine, and Alabama State also had good vibes like Jackson State heading into the offseason after the 2019 campaign, which seems so long ago. The COVID-19 pandemic eliminated most football activities last year.
Alcorn State coach Fred McNair agreed Sanders being hired at the Braves' closest rival is important for "what it means to the conference."
But, he added, "We have to go out and coach our butts off every Saturday. It's a competitive nature. He's a competitive coach. It just goes in step with what we have here."
Speaking of getting the competitive juices flowing, the SWAC preseason team must have motivated longtime power Grambling State. Although the Tigers nominated players for consideration, none made the 49-member team. All nine other teams had selections, with Prairie View A&M's eight the most in the West Division.
The preseason poll will be released Thursday.
Updated January 13, 2021