MEAC/SWAC Challenge highlights opening weekend

If you're a fan of black college football, it doesn't get any better than the second annual MEAC/SWAC Challenge, which features Hampton and Grambling State, two of the most successful HBCU programs. They will clash at Legion Field in Birmingham on Saturday (ESPN2, noon ET). In fact, the Pirates and the Tigers completed the 2005 as the top two teams in black college football.

A year ago, Grambling won the Southwestern Athletic Conference finishing with a 9-0 league record and an 11-1 overall mark. The Tigers only loss was to Division I-A Washington State.

Hampton captured the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference at 8-0 and finished the season with an 11-1 overall record. The Pirates suffered a first-round Division I-AA playoff setback to Richmond, 38-10.

Nevertheless, this is a huge early-season matchup against two outstanding teams. Joe Taylor, Hampton head coach, realizes the magnitude of this contest.

"It's certainly a big game for two teams that finished No. 1 in black college football last year," Taylor said. "It's not every year that you see two good teams play this soon. I have a lot of respect for Grambling. The program has such a great history going back to when [former Grambling coach] Eddie Robinson had them and they're still playing good football. That's says a lot for the tradition."

Melvin Spears, Tigers head coach, is well aware of the Pirates' football legacy. Spears feels Taylor has built quite a powerhouse too.

"Joe Taylor is one of the best coaches in college football," Spears said. "He's done a great job up there. This game is on national television [ESPN2]. It's going to provide some good exposure for both conferences. That's a good thing because we have some great players in this game."

The Tigers will have to replace Division I-AA All-American Bruce Eugene who threw for 4,408 yards and 56 touchdowns. Spears will look to a redshirt sophomore Brandon Landers to take over at quarterback.

Unfortunately, Landers experienced a tragedy last weekend. According to police reports, Landers' brother Frank, 18, was shot and killed, and his cousin Anthony, 30, was shot and wounded last Friday night in Monroe, La., following an argument after a high school football game. Police said Brandon Landers was trying to be the peacemaker.

Spears said during the SWAC conference call he expects Landers to play against Hampton.

"I think Brandon is going to be ready to go," Spears said. "We don't have any backup plans at quarterback. We're going to proceed as is. If Brandon can't play, then the next guy who will come in is Larry Kerlegan."

"This game is on national television [ESPN2]. It's going to provide some good exposure for both conferences. That's a good thing because we have some great players in this game."
-- Grambling coach Melvin Spears

Two years ago, Landers filled in for Eugene when he missed the season with a knee injury. Landers did extremely well, throwing for 2,283 yards and 18 TDs. He was named SWAC Freshman of the Year in 2004. He also helped Grambling win the Bayou Classic.

"Brandon did a great job when Bruce Eugene went down," Spears said. "He also had a chance to sit around and watch him play. I feel like he has a good grasp of the offense."

Landers has some tremendous receivers in Henry Tolbert (74 receptions, 1,391 yards and 19 TDs), Clyde Edwards (54 receptions, 1,015 yards, 10 TDs) and Tim Abney (18 receptions, 329 yards, 6 TDs). Ab Kuuan, Grambling State's running back, gives the team a steady ground attack. Kuaan rushed for 891 yards while scoring nine TDs in 2005.

"They have an explosive team," Taylor said. "Grambling has great receivers. They have a fine running game. They can definitely score a lot of points. As far as the quarterback, it's a really tough situation. You hate to see anybody go through that. You just hate to see it. I think [Landers is] more of an athlete than Bruce Eugene. They both can throw the ball, but he's more athletic."

Hampton has plenty of experience to go along with some magnificent talent. Offensively, the Pirates are led by running back Alonzo Coleman, a three-time 1,000-yard rusher who finished with 1,326 yards and 19 TDs last year.

Princeton Shepherd is an impressive 21-5 as Hampton's starting quarterback the past three seasons. Shepherd's main targets will be receivers Marquay McDaniel, Onrea Jones and Dereck Faulkner.

On defense, the Pirates have Justin Durant, a two-time MEAC Defensive Player of the Year. Durant led the team with 124 total tackles. Defensive end Kendall Langford (65 total tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks) is also a key player.

"Hampton has good players on both sides of the ball," Spears said. "They can beat you in a lot of different ways. This is going to be quite a challenge for us. We're going to keep on working because we have to be ready to play."

HBCU notes
• Lee Fobbs, North Carolina A&T head coach, has announced that running back Brandon Sweeney will not play football for the Aggies this year. Sweeney, who would have been a senior this season, suffers from a kidney ailment. He led the Aggies in rushing last season with 877 yards in eight games. He missed three games because of a high ankle sprain. If he hadn't missed those games, he would have been on pace to be one of the best runners in the MEAC.

• Henry Frazier, Prairie View A&M head coach, participated in the NFL Minority Coaching Fellowship Program. Frazier had an opportunity to work with Houston Texans head coach Gary Kubiak. This is the 25th anniversary of the program. The fellowship was instituted in 1981 to provide training camp coaching opportunities for minority coaches at NFL teams. Nearly 1,000 minority coaches have been involved with the program.

• Alabama A&M's brothers Kelcy and Nic Luke used to play for rival colleges. Kelcy played for Alabama while Nic was a member of Auburn's team. Two years ago, the Luke brothers transferred to Alabama A&M and quickly made it a power in the SWAC. Kelcy, the Hornets' quarterback, is coming off a terrific year where he threw for 2,012 yards and 13 TDs. Nic, Alabama A&M's tailback, rushed for 819 yards and scored eight TDs last year.

• In the first week of the season, two teams from the SWAC will step up and play Division I-A programs. Alabama State will visit Troy University. Alcorn State will travel to Louisiana-Monroe.

• Other HBCUs will also be playing Division I-A programs this year. University of Houston will be hosting Grambling State on Sept. 16. In the MEAC, Rutgers will entertain Howard University on Sept. 23. On that same day, North Carolina A&T will journey to Louisiana-Lafayette.

• Delaware State and Florida A&M will battle in the Motor City this Saturday. The Hornets and the Rattles face each other in the fourth annual Detroit Football Classic. This game will also open regular-season play for both teams in the MEAC.

• Due to major renovations at South Carolina State's Oliver C. Dawson Stadium, the team's Sept. 16 home opener with Bethune-Cookman is being moved to The Citadel's Johnson Hagood Stadium in Charleston, S.C. Kickoff for the game will stay at 6 p.m. ET.

Synthetic turf is replacing the grass field at Oliver C. Dawson Stadium, and a new scoreboard with replay capability is being installed. The stadium enhancements should be ready for South Carolina State's Oct. 7 home game against Norfolk State.

• Hampton linebacker Justin Durant and running back Alonzo Coleman are garnering some national recognition this season. Durant is one of 16 players up for the Buck Buchanan Award. This award is presented each year to the top defensive player in Division I-AA. Coleman is a candidate for the Walter Payton Award, which is given to the best offensive player in I-AA.

Donald Hunt is a columnist for The Philadelphia Tribune.