BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — Alcorn State, the defending Southwestern Athletic Conference champion, is the preseason favorite to win the league's Eastern Division while Grambling has been picked to win the West.
Alcorn State quarterback John Gibbs Jr. is the preseason offensive player of the year. Gibbs threw for 2,482 yards and 21 touchdowns last season while also running for 1,006 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Gibbs came to Alcorn State at the same time as fourth-year coach Jay Hopson. Together, they've helped the Braves rise from the bottom of the league to the program everyone is chasing. Alcorn State defeated Southern 38-24 for the SWAC championship last season.
"We've just got to remain humble and execute every week," Gibbs said. "We can't get ahead of ourselves and look forward too far."
Hopson said the 6-foot-6 Gibbs matured more quickly than even he anticipated.
"I told him the other day I wish I could have redshirted him his first year, but he was immediately the best guy we had," Hopson said. "Every year he's been better and better. He's already done tremendous things at Alcorn and we've been blessed to have him."
Alcorn State is followed by Jackson State, Alabama A&M, Alabama State and Mississippi Valley in the East's preseason rankings, while Grambling is trailed by Southern, Prairie View, Texas Southern and Arkansas-Pine Bluff in the West.
Alabama State's Kourtney Berry is the league's preseason defensive player of the year and had a league-high 128 tackles in 2014.
Grambling has bounced back after a disastrous season two years ago that featured a 1-10 record and embarrassing player boycott over subpar facilities.
But second-year coach Broderick Fobbs turned the Tigers around quickly, leading the program to a 7-5 record in 2014. Now, they're expected to be on top of this year's Western Division.
"For us, the expectations don't change," Fobbs said. "Even though we've been picked at the bottom from time to time, because of the foundation, a lot of people know what Grambling can do. I don't think we necessarily surprised anyone."
The league's 10 coaches and sports information directors voted in the preseason poll.
This year's SWAC champion will play in the newly-formed Celebration Bowl, which will be played against the winner of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. The game is scheduled for Dec. 19 at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta and televised on ABC.
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