SWAC West Preview

With 19 starters returning from last year's historic season, Arkansas-Pine Bluff is heavily-favored to repeat in the SWAC West.

UAPB's 24-21 victory over Jackson State in the SWAC championship game gave the school its first-ever outright conference championship.

Coach Monte Coleman's Golden Lions received 14 of 24 first-place votes in the SWAC preseason poll as the league held its annual Media Day on Monday in Birmingham, Ala.

The projected order of finish with last year's records in parentheses:

1. UAPB (10-2, 8-1) — With 19 returning starters (10 offense, 9 defense, 1 special teams) the Golden Lions appear fully capable of matching or bettering last year's school-record win total.

All-conference quarterback Ben Anderson, who was selected as the preseason Player of the Year on Monday, returns to direct a balanced attack. Last year, Anderson passed for 2,346 yards and 16 TDs, while running for 519 stripes and five scores.

Anderson's primary targets are wide receiver Ladarius Eckwood (52 receptions, 787 yards, 6 TDs) and tight end Dez Beverly (46-436-6).

Running back Justin Billings (148 carries, 852 yards, 5 TDs) averaged 5.8 yards per carry in 2012, tops in the SWAC.

Four of the starting five offensive linemen return, including All-SWAC guard Kenny Eagle.

Defensively, the Golden Lions must replace only two starters, although both — SWAC Player of the Year Brandon Thurman and Bill Ross, the league's leading tackler — were key components in last year's championship run.

Linebackers Xavier Lofton (107 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, 2 sacks) and Jer-Ryan Harris (98 tackles, 10 tackles for loss) and free safety Ryan Shaw (62 tackles, 1 interception, 13 pass breakups) are expected to spearhead the defense.

2. Southern (4-7, 3-6) — Seeking to secure its first winning season since 2009, Southern welcomes back eight defensive starters in Dawson Odums' first full season as head coach.

Odums was promoted to interim head coach in place of Stump Mitchell as the Jaguars made an in-season coaching change in 2012. With the team showing improvement down the stretch, Odums was awarded the head coaching position on a permanent basis.

Linebacker Anthony Balancier (69 tackles, 14 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 2 INTs) and defensive back Virgil Williams (62 tackles, 5 TFL) head the defensive unit. Williams also returned 22 punts for a 10 yard average.

Quarterback is in the capable hands of Dray Joseph, who threw for a SWAC-best 2,511 yards last season, with 25 touchdowns. Joseph's favorite receiver, Lee Doss (65-698-8) is also back.

Southern is looking for more production from its running game after ranking dead last in the conference with a meager 79.5 yards per game. Redshirt freshman Lenard Tillory moved to the top of the depth chart at running back in the spring.

3. Prairie View A&M (3-8, 3-6) — Nine offensive starters return from a high-powered offense which averaged 27 points per game last season. Unfortunately for the Panthers, there are still plenty of defensive issues to solve after yielding 36 points per outing.

De'Auntre Smiley and Jerry Lovelocke will continue to share time at quarterback. Smiley's 2012 season line included 1,419 yards and 11 touchdowns through the air and 367 yards and three scores on the ground. Lovelocke passed for 1,033 yards and five TDs.

Johnta Hebert, the 2012 SWAC Freshman of the Year, is an all-purpose threat for the Panthers. Besides rushing for 217 yards and catching 16 passes for 196 stripes and a touchdown, he returned 49 kickoffs for an 18.1-yard average, with one TD.

Defensively, Prairie View must replace its entire secondary.

4. Grambling (1-10, 0-10) — Grambling sets out to improve upon an unprecedented 10-loss campaign. To find a silver lining from last year's disaster, the youthful Tigers lost five games by a touchdown or less, including a pair of 1-point losses.

Coach Doug Williams expects the Tigers' decline to be temporal.

“They all understand what's at stake,” Williams said at the SWAC's Media Day. “They all understand that last year was a tough year for all of us, and that's something we have to correct.

“We're going to get back to being Grambling. There's no doubt in my mind. Whether it's this year or next year, we're going to be Grambling.”

Grambling is looking for improvement on both sides of the ball after averaging 18.2 points per game and allowing 32.8.

D.J. Williams, the coach's son, is now the full-time quarterback after sharing time with Frank Rivers the past two seasons. Rivers has transferred to Albany (Ga.) State. D.J. Williams threw for 1,214 yards with five touchdowns and seven picks as a sophomore.

Running back Cedric Skinner (127 carries, 407 yards, 6 TDs) led the team in rushing, while Anthony McGhee (42 receptions, 561 yards, 5 TDs) is the top returning receiver.

Clint Marsh, the Tigers' lone representative on the preseason all-conference team, anchors the offensive line.

In an effort to bolster the defense, Dough Williams brought in former New Orleans Saints' linebacker Dennis “Dirt” Winston as defensive coordinator.

5. Texas Southern (2-9, 2-7) — Continuing to deal with NCAA sanctions, the Tigers face another challenging seasons after finishing at the bottom of the league in scoring (15.0 points per game) and points allowed (38.9 ppg).

Wide receiver Fred Plummer (34-534-2) is the team's top playmaker, while running back Edward Loving-Perkins (121-541-3) keys the running game.

Defensive back Le'Tevin Wilcox (56 tackles, 3 interceptions) is TSU's only representative on the preseason all-conference team.