Bethune-Cookman and Jackson State preparing for season-opening challenge

Credit: Jaylon Thompson

Credit: Jaylon Thompson

For the second consecutive year, the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) season will kick off in Atlanta.

All eyes will be on Georgia State Stadium on Sept. 1 as representatives from the Mid-Eastern Conference and the Southwestern Conference compete in the 15th annual MEAC/SWAC Challenge.

The MEAC has won nine of the 14 games played. Last year, Prairie View A&M defeated North Carolina Central to open the 2018 season.

This season, an old rivalry is renewed as the Bethune-Cookman Wildcats square off against the Jackson State Tigers. The schools will meet for the first time since 1989. The Tigers hold a 4-2 series lead.

Bethune-Cookman is making its fourth appearance in the MEAC/SWAC Challenge. This is Jackson State’s first appearance since 2008.

“This game is the lifeline of the Southwestern Athletic Conference,” SWAC Commissioner Charles McClelland said Tuesday in a news conference at Georgia State Stadium. “When you add the Celebration Bowl (at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in December), it’s our No. 1 priority when it comes to football.”

It will be a homecoming for Wildcats coach Terry Sims. Sims graduated from Wayne County High School and brings his team to Atlanta looking to build off a 7-5 campaign.

“Anytime I have an opportunity to coach in my home state is a treat,” Sims said.

Four Georgians are on the schools’ rosters: Trevor Gear (McDonough), Trenten Jackson (Jesup) and Blake Davis (Conyers) of Bethune-Cookman and Matthew Crawford (Lithonia) of Jackson State.

The Wildcats finished second in the MEAC in 2018. They return a wealth of talent, with four players landing on the Black College Player of the Year watch list.

However, the team’s biggest “addition” was the return of senior quarterback Akevious Williams. The signal-caller suffered a season-ending knee injury in October, but has been a full participant in preseason camp.

“He has taken every first-team rep since Day 1 of camp,” Sims said. “He hasn’t slowed down, and we look for him to be the starter when camp ends.”

Williams transforms the Wildcats’ attack. His production also helps alleviate pressure on the defense, which is led by seniors Marques Ford and Marquis Hendrix. Both were All-MEAC selections last season and return to bolster a talented unit.

For Jackson State, the season opener will be coach John Hendrick’s first step in rebuilding the program. He shed the interim tag after going 2-1 in the Tigers’ final three games. He plans to get a better look at his team against Bethune-Cookman.

“We had the opportunity to gather some good talent,” Hendrick said. “Hopefully, we can put them in position to win a lot of football games for us.”

One of those talented players is University of Florida transfer Jalon Jones. The four-star freshman quarterback arrived in Jackson amid sexual-battery accusations while at Florida.

No charges were filed and, since his arrival, Jones has been competing for a starting role with junior Derrick Ponder, among others.

“He has really fit in well, and the kids love him,” Hendrick said. “He has a dynamic personality, and he is good to be around. He has a leadership gift that I think is outstanding.”

Hendrick remains coy about naming a starter. He will make that decision before the season opener but didn’t rule out playing multiple guys.

“To have that competition has been great for our football team,” Hendrick said. “The great thing is our kids like all of them and will play hard for them.”