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Grambling State head coach Broderick Fobbs and his players prepare to take the field against Southern University during the Bayou Classic Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018, at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — As he got dressed on Tuesday morning, Grambling wide receiver Quintin Guice slid a large, silver ring onto his left hand. The words “National Champions” encircled a Grambling logo.

Three years ago, Guice was a freshman when Grambling won the Celebration Bowl. The Tigers returned to the top of football amongst historically Black colleges and universities with their 15th HBCU national championship.

Grambling won the Southwestern Athletic Conference a year later before losing in the national championship. It went 22-3 over two seasons, the best team in the SWAC, the envy of the rest of the conference.

But on Tuesday at SWAC media day, Grambling did not talk about defending titles. The Tigers had to discuss last year’s 6-5 season.

“It was disappointing because we go into every season expecting to beat everybody on our schedule,” Guice said. “And 6-5, that's not Grambling football. That's not the football we've become accustomed to, but going into this season we've let all that go.”

The Tigers lost the majority of their offense last year with the graduation of quarterback DeVante Kincade and running back Martez Carter. They had to replace experienced players, and the offense struggled as it returned to its foundations. The defense strained under pressure. The players stopped holding frequent meetings.

With a 1-4 record one month into the season, the Tigers began to play faster. Young players adjusted to the speed of the college game. The team discovered its confidence, and the Tigers held player-only meetings again.

“We started coming together more as a team,” junior linebacker De'Andre Hogues said. “We started getting that camaraderie, and we started winning.”

Grambling won five of its last seven games, its two losses coming against Southern and Alcorn State, which both played for the conference championship. The Tigers continued to find their playmakers during spring practice, coach Broderick Fobbs said, building off the success they had at the end of the year.

The Tigers feel confident as they approach preseason practice. Fobbs likes the talent on the roster and the players’ experience. Redshirt sophomore Geremy Hickbottom will begin camp as the first-string quarterback, but there a few other players who could start at the position. If Grambling doesn’t beat itself, Fobbs thinks it will have a chance to play for championships again.

“We've got to get back to Grambling football,” Guice said. “Some of the guys on the team have played for this national championship, so we know what it takes.”

Championship game

During his address at the beginning of SWAC media day, commissioner Dr. Charles McClelland announced the conference championship football game will remain on the campus of the highest-ranked team.

The SWAC received proposals from “several cities” to host the game, McClelland said, but the league decided to keep it on campuses after consulting athletic directors, presidents and chancellors.

“The permanent home of the SWAC championship will be on the campus of the higher seed,” McClelland said.

The SWAC moved its conference championship game to campus stadiums last year. Alcorn State beat Southern, 37-28.

“It was a great environment for the schools, for the programs, for the atmosphere in our conference there's nothing like it,” Southern head coach Dawson Odums said. “Hopefully you're the home team. It's difficult now. It's difficult going into a hostile environment and trying to win a championship game because your crowd is going to be the deciding factor.”

The 2019 SWAC championship game will be played on Saturday, December 7 at 3 p.m.

Jags on All-SWAC team

The SWAC released its preseason all-conference teams on Tuesday morning. Six Southern players made the list.

Offensive lineman Jodeci Harris and defensive lineman Jordan Lewis both earned first team selections. Running back Devon Benn, offensive lineman Jaylon Brinson, tight end Jeremias Houston and defensive back Montavious Gaines made the second team.

Alcorn State had the most selections with 14.

Alcorn State gets nod

Along with the all-conference teams, the SWAC released its predicted order of finish for the 2019 season. It was voted on by the league’s head coaches and sports information directors.

Southern was picked to repeat as Western Division champions with 90 votes. The Jaguars came ahead of the Prairie View A&M (78 votes), Grambling (74), Texas Southern (34) and Arkansas-Pine Bluff (24).

In the Eastern Division, Alcorn State (92) was picked to finish in first place with Alabama A&M (70), Jackson State (61), Alabama State (47) and Mississippi Valley State (30) behind the Braves.

The league predicted Alcorn State to repeat as champions, beating Southern in the conference title game.

Email Wilson Alexander at walexander@theadvocate.com.