Over the past decade, Alcorn State has become synonymous with the Southwest Athletic Conference championship game, not to mention excellence in the conference overall.
The Braves are making a league-record sixth consecutive appearance in the game at 3 p.m. Saturday against Southern at Alcorn’s Spinks-Casem Stadium. The game will be broadcast by ESPNU, with the winner advancing to meet North Carolina A&T in the Celebration Bowl on Dec. 21 in Atlanta.
The Braves have won three of the previous five titles, including last year’s 37-28 win over Southern and a 38-24 decision against the Jaguars in 2014.
Over the past six years, including this season, Alcorn State is 48-25 overall and 36-12 in SWAC play.
How do the Braves do it?
“It’s a group of coaches getting together and getting guys who want to play football at Alcorn,” fourth-year coach Fred McNair said. “You have to work to be a part of this program. We identify the right players who want to be here. These are some of the hardest-working kids I’ve seen in my tenure: the weight room, the classroom, on the field, fall practice, spring practice.
“They get prepared for the season with the mindset to win a championship one day. It’s a cliché, but we say: ‘If you stay here you’ll play; if you play, you’ll win a championship one day.’ That’s the mindset these young men and the coaches have.”
There wouldn’t be an argument from Southern coach Dawson Odums, who has a winning record against every other SWAC team but is 1-9 against the Braves, and has lost the last four. Alcorn knocked off the Jaguars 27-13 on Oct. 26, rallying from a 6-3 halftime deficit to score 24 unanswered points.
“They’ve had the best talent in the East,” Odums said. “Their dominance is because of the consistency at quarterback in the last six years. They also have had good running backs, and (they're) sound on defense. They’ve been able to keep their talent better than the other teams on that side.”
The latest quarterback to run the show is a prime example of the Braves' continuity. Felix Harper, a junior, stepped in when returning SWAC Offensive Player of the Year Noah Johnson suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. Harper has responded with 2,379 yards and 29 touchdowns passing with only five interceptions in 270 attempts.
Harper ranks in the top five in the nation among FCS teams in offensive efficiency (167.9) and points responsible for (20 per game). He’s in the top 10 in TD passes and yards per completion (14.3).
“What we got with Felix was a special, humble person,” McNair said. “The things he could do with his arm and his legs were unique. The opportunity presented itself against McNeese and he did a great job bringing us back in that game.
“(Quarterbacks) Coach (Pat) White is doing an outstanding job preparing him. He’s running the offense the way it should be run, throwing to the open guy in coverage, knowing where the ball is supposed to go. That’s special with him. He doesn’t hold it in his hands long.”
Also, when Alcorn needs a freshman to step up, he does. Rookie running back Niko Duffey leads the team with 758 yards and six touchdowns after senior DeShawn Waller was slowed by injuries. Waller missed the Braves' last game against Jackson state after a groin injury against Grambling, but McNair said he’s expected to play.
“He worked out with us this morning,” McNair said. “We got him on the field yesterday, and he looked pretty good to me. I hope he’s feeling good. It’s one of those things you have to take time with.”
Alcorn always plays solid defense, and this season is no exception. The Braves have the league’s best scoring defense (19.3) and rushing defense (127.5), and they lead the SWAC with 18 interceptions.
Their top defender is Solomon Mohammad, who has 57 tackles and 8½ tackles for loss.
“I don’t think he’s played up to his potential yet,” McNair said of the 6-1, 235-pound senior. “He’s made some plays and could have made more. He’s got the prototype body and the mindset. He wants to play his perfect game. Hopefully in this game we will see the best of him.”