THE RATING GAME

1. GRAMBLING

No clear-cut favorite, but Tigers are most consistent program.

2. JACKSON STATE

Despite title-game ban, JSU has great potential, great QB.

3. ALCORN STATE

With Spears and QB Bridge, Braves might win the East.

4. PRAIRIE VIEW

Panthers are West contenders, but have tough opening game.

5. ARKANSAS-PINE BLUFF

Lions need a QB, but they?re a dark horse in West. Seriously.

6. TEXAS SOUTHERN

Reigning champs fired Johnnie Cole, lost several key players.

7. ALABAMA STATE

Fourteen players are academically ineligible for East champs.

8. ALABAMA A&M

Bulldogs had a rare down year. Can they make the climb back?

9. SOUTHERN

Despite APR woes, 2-9 record, Stump says his team is better.

10. MISS. VALLEY STATE

Team went 0-10 last year, but played hard for Karl Morgan.

THIS WEEK?S SCHEDULE

SATURDAY

Concordia at Jackson State, 1:30 p.m.

Alabama A&M vs. Hampton, at Chicago, 4 p.m.

Alabama State at Mississippi Valley State, 5 p.m.

Langston vs. Arkansas-Pine Bluff, at Little Rock, Ark. 5 p.m.

Grambling vs. Alcorn State, at Shreveport, 6 p.m.

Southern at Tennessee State, 6 p.m.

SUNDAY

Prairie View vs. Bethune-Cookman, at Orlando, Fla., 11 a.m.

GAME OF THE WEEK

Prairie View vs. Bethune-Cookman

MEAC/SWAC Challenge

11 a.m. Sunday, ESPN

Citrus Bowl, Orlando, Fla.

How?s this for a big debut? Prairie View?s Heishma Northern, the Glen Oaks High graduate and former SU safety, will be on national television for his first game as a head coach. The longtime defensive coordinator, who took over at PV after Henry Frazier III fled to North Carolina Central, has a mighty tall order on his hands. Bethune-Cookman finished 10-2 in its first year under coach Brian Jenkins, winning a piece of the MEAC title and reaching the FCS playoffs for the first time since 2003. Of course, the Wildcats no longer have offensive coordinator Mark Orlando. The longtime Southern assistant is now running Prairie View?s offense.

AROUND THE SWAC

•?Jackson State might have the best team in the Eastern Division, but APR-related penalties will keep the Tigers from playing for a conference championship. One other thing: Sixth-year coach Rick Comegy is in the final year of his contract, with no promise of an extension forthcoming. His take?

?I let God handle those things,? Comegy said. ?You start worrying about those things, and you cheat the kids. I have to give the kids 100 percent of Rick Comegy, and what happens, happens.?

e_SBlt?Alabama State, the reigning Eastern Division champion, has lost more than offensive coordinator Melvin Spears. Some 14 players are academically ineligible, and two offensive linemen left the team for personal reasons. Still, coach Reggie Barlow is optimistic. He said the core of his team is back; ASU has a new quarterback in Troy transfer Greg Jenkins; and its new offensive coordinator, Fred Kaiss, is a familiar name in the SWAC. He coached under Pete Richardson and turned down an offer from Stump Mitchell this spring.

e_SBlt?Texas Southern may have won a SWAC championship last season, but its three-year run under Johnnie Cole was more bitter than sweet. Under investigation by the NCAA, the school fired Cole and four assistants, then promoted Kevin Ramsey to interim head coach. For these reasons and others, Ramsey said there?s no time for a championship hangover.

?That?s behind us now,? he said. ?We?ve got our hands on the plow, and we?re looking forward.?