Southern to meet Florida A&M in MEAC/SWAC Challenge

If you talk to Southern head coach Pete Richardson about the season opener against Florida A&M, he feels it will be a real challenge for the Jaguars when the teams meet in the third annual MEAC/SWAC Challenge at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala.on Saturday (ESPN Classic, 1 p.m. ET).

Each year, the game features a team from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference against a team from the Southwestern Athletic Conference. This year's contest will pair the MEAC's Florida A&M against Southern from the SWAC.

"It's really going to be a challenge for us," Richardson said. "Florida A&M has a great coach [Rubin Carter]. He's turning the program around. In our situation, we're going through a transition. We're hoping our quarterback Bryant Lee will come around for us. He had an excellent spring and finished up strong last year."

Lee, a 6-2, 195-pound sophomore, got his chance to display his skills when starter J.C. Lewis got hurt against Texas Southern last season. Lee came off the bench to lead Southern to a 34-17 win over TSU. He threw for 138 yards and one touchdown. He also rushed for 102 yards and two TDs. Moreover, he led Southern to a 21-17 victory over arch rival Grambling State in the Bayou Classic.

Last season, he completed 51-of-87 passes for 571 yards including three TDs and four interceptions. He was the Jaguars leading rusher compiling 302 yards on 67 carries including five TDs.

"He has good size," said Richardson, whose team finished with a 5-6 record last season. "He's bigger and stronger. He's still a young quarterback. Bryant needs help from the running game. Then he has to get the ball to [wide receiver] Gerard Landry (55 receptions, 727 yards, 5 TDs). He has the size and speed to get down the field."

Defensively, Southern has two outstanding players in cornerback Jarmaul George (five interceptions), the SWAC's preseason defensive player of the year and all-conference defensive end Vincent Lands who should be able to make a lot of plays.

"Defense is one of our strengths," Richardson said. "Jarmaul is a tremendous player. He has great quickness. He does things instinctively. Vincent is a very intelligent player. He runs a 4.7 in the 40. We're going to need big games from them. FAMU can really play."

The Rattlers are one of the most improved teams in the MEAC. FAMU had a 7-4 overall record and a 5-3 league mark last year. Offensively, the Rattlers key player is senior quarterback Albert Chester, an All-MEAC preseason first-team choice, this year. Chester had a league-best 1,986 yards and 18 TDs with just five interceptions. He hit 62.1 percent of his passes.

"Albert is a senior," Carter said. "He's been a great player for us. He's made some big plays to help us win a lot of games. He can really throw the ball. He can run, too. The big thing is he doesn't have to do it all by himself."

FAMU has a solid running game with fullback Anthony Edwards (482 yards, 123 carries, 5 TDs) and halfback Demitric Henry (414 yards, 70 carries, 2 TDs). Willie Hayward is the team's leading receiver. A year ago, Hayward caught 49 passes for 674 yards and 5 TDs.

"We call Anthony Edwards and Demitric Henry 'Thunder and Lightning'," Carter said. "Anthony is the thunder. Demitric is the lightning. Willie can go up and make a big catch. He's 6-2 and 200 pounds. He can also run after the catch."

On defense, Tyrone McGriff, Jr. is a fine passing rushing defensive end who has had 8½ sacks and 19 tackles for loss the past two years.

"Tyrone never stops running," Carter said. "He keeps right on moving. He has great timing and can get to the quarterback very quickly. He's always ready to play."

This is the first time these two teams have met since 2001. The teams first competed in 1941, with FAMU leading the all-time series 33-24-1. Richardson feels this is a big game for both teams.

"You have two teams with great traditions and have played each other in the past," Richardson said. "It's good exposure for both schools and the conferences. This is a good early season matchup. This is a game that can help you with recruiting and building your program."

The inaugural matchup of the MEAC/SWAC Challenge in 2005 showcased the MEAC's South Carolina State vs. Alabama State of the SWAC, with South Carolina State winning, 27-14. Last year's game was settled in overtime with the MEAC's Hampton nipping the SWAC's Grambling State, 27-26.

• This game has featured some outstanding players such as Alabama State's Tarvaris Jackson and Hampton's Justin Durant. Jackson is the starting quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings. Durant is a rookie linebacker for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

• Reggie Barlow was Jackson's quarterback coach at ASU for two years. Barlow will be making his coaching debut for the Hornets on Saturday against Jacksonville State at home. Barlow replaced Charles Coe who left ASU to become an assistant coach with the Oakland Raiders.

• Rod Broadway will make his first appearance as Grambling State's head coach. Broadway was the head coach at North Carolina Central last year. He led the Eagles to the CIAA championship and the NCAA Division II playoffs. NCCU was also named the National Black College Champions.

• Delaware State will host Coastal Carolina, the three-time defending Big South Conference championships this Saturday. The Hornets will have a chance to unveil that great passing combination with quarterback Vashon Winton (132.8 quarterback rating) and Shaheer McBride (55 receptions, 852 yards, 11 TDs).

• South Carolina State will open its season against Air Force on the road this Saturday. In two weeks, the Bulldogs will visit the University of South Carolina in Columbia. South Carolina State will try to stay competitive against Division I-A programs before the MEAC schedule gets in full swing.

• Florida A&M will celebrate two golden anniversaries this season -- for the 1957 National Championship Team and for venerable Bragg Memorial Stadium. The 1957 Rattler football team, which will be celebrated during the annual Toast To The Champions FAMU Football Reunion, Sept. 14-15, had a number of notable football players including John D. Glover, a Miami native who would eventually become the highest-ranking African American in the FBI in the 1980s, as associate director.

The Rattlers pounded the opposition 343-41, recorded four shutouts and allowed more than six points in a game once -- a 27-21 Orange Blossom Classic win over Maryland State (now Maryland Eastern Shore). The nucleus of this group would capture two other national titles in 1959 (10-0) and 1961 (10-0).

• Bragg Memorial Stadium, in its current incarnation, was completed for play in 1957, just in time to serve as home for the first eight national championship teams ... Forty of the 49 Rattler teams to call Bragg home have turned in winning seasons ... The original facility seated 10,700 fans and bleacher seats increased the capacity to 13,200 ... After renovations were completed in 1981, the venue was expanded to its current capacity of 25,500.

Donald Hunt is a columnist for The Philadelphia Tribune.