BR.swacchampionship.120218 TS 1948.jpg

Alcorn State players rush onto the field at the end of the SWAC championship game at Spinks-Casem Stadium in Lorman, Miss., on Dec. 1. Alcorn triumphed over Southern 37-28.

What will it take for Southern to crack Alcorn’s grip?

Alcorn State has proven itself as the class of the SWAC with five straight title-game appearances and three SWAC titles in that span. Southern used to claim that kind of pedigree and is positioned to make a move. Balance has been the key, and while the Braves have SWAC offensive MVP Noah Johnson back at quarterback, they are rebuilding their defensive line. Southern looks to have the better balance this time, anchored by a deep and talented defensive line. Stopping the run is the key to controlling the opposing passing game. This is where the Jaguars program can reassert itself.

Can Grambling regain its hold on the Western Division?

The Tigers benefited from Southern’s APR-related issues in the past few years and put a stranglehold on the Western Division. To challenge the Jaguars, Grambling needs major repairs on an inconsistent offensive line that allowed 41 sacks last season, worst in the league. The signs were good in the spring when the offense moved the ball against a strong defense. If Grambling can repeat its 2018 defensive play (9th in the nation in red-zone defense, 28th in third-down efficiency) it could slow down the Jaguars’ re-emergence. An X-factor will be the need to cut down on penalties, which plagued the Tigers last fall.

Can Prairie View make the West a three-way race?

The Panthers can’t seem to gain any traction in a tough division. They’ve made one appearance in the SWAC title game in 20 seasons, winning the 2009 title. Another disappointing season in 2017 led to the hiring of Eric Dooley, whose team was a deceiving 5-6 in a rebuilding year last fall. The Panthers were first in scoring offense (33.5) and second in yards per game (459). The defense was fourth overall and second in yards per play allowed (4.7). Dooley needs to get a full season out of quarterback Jalen Morton and running back Dawonya Tucker, who faded down the stretch, and the defense needs to come through with a few more big plays.

Who is the dark horse in the East?

Alcorn looks like a lock, but Alabama A&M will have something to say about it. In their only SWAC losses, the Bulldogs fell to Southern 29-27 and Alcorn 35-26, the two teams who played for the title. They were that close to being a spoiler and will have 16 starters back for another try. Connell Maynor coached the Bulldogs to their first winning season since 2012 in his first year. All-SWAC linebacker Armoni Holloway led the No. 3 defensive team in the league. Quarterback Aqueel Glass was much better as a sophomore, leading the SWAC with 2,426 yards and 20 TDs passing.

Has the quarterback position ever been this strong?

Not in a while. Having a returning quarterback is one of the most important indicators of a team’s chances at success. With that in mind, this SWAC season might be wide open, both in competition and in offensive numbers. Eight of 10 teams return their quarterbacks, which should put every defense on notice. Only Jackson State and Mississippi Valley will have open competitions behind center. Returning offensive MVP Noah Johnson might have trouble repeating. And Southern’s Ladarius Skleton showed some scary potential as he got comfortable and led the Jaguars surge down the stretch.