Eagles finally earn respect

Well, N.C. Central can no longer consider themselves the Rodney Dangerfields of the MEAC. Friday at MEAC Media Day, the Eagles finally got some respect.

At the league’s annual preseason gathering, N.C. Central was picked to win a fourth straight MEAC title. The coaches and sports information directors in the conference vote, and the Eagles finished one spot ahead of rival North Carolina A&T, who were picked to win it all in 2016. South Carolina State, Bethune-Cookman, Hampton, Florida A&M, Norfolk State, Morgan State, Howard, Savannah State and Delaware State round out the predicted order of finish. It was the first time since Jerry Mack took over in 2014 N.C. Central was predicted to finish first in the conference. Mack’s first season, the coaches predicted the Eagles to finish No. 8. That season Mack’s squad won the share of the MEAC title.

N.C. Central, which finished a perfect 8-0 in the MEAC last season, will play each of the remaining four teams in the top five predicted order of finish. The Eagles didn’t play South Carolina State or Hampton last season, who replaced Morgan State and Savannah State on N.C. Central’s schedule.

Last season the Eagles were picked to finish third in the league behind Bethune-Cookman. After winning a share of two league titles and holding a two-game winning streak over the Aggies, the Eagles used the slight as motivation throughout the 2016 season. They also were disappointed about not getting any televised games during the regular season. The conference championship finale versus A&T in Durham was televised, but originally wasn’t on the schedule of MEAC televised games. This season N.C. Central has televised Thursday night games on consecutive weeks, finally, a sign of respect from the conference, in the Eagles’ opinion.

Heading into the MEAC Media Day some publications had already made predictions, and a few had the Eagles in second or third place. That was perfectly fine with junior running back Ramone Simpson.

“I feel like I would rather be picked No. 4,” Simpson said. “It’s always better to play with a chip on the shoulder. It’s always back to the point of staying humble and being hungry.”

The players will tell you that hunger comes from making to the Celebration Bowl and coming up short. And while they have respect in the conference, they have goals bigger than winning another MEAC title. That’s important, no question about it, but that’s just one thing they have to accomplish to win a HBCU National Championship.

Mack would say his team hasn’t arrived, that there are still people who still doubt his program. That’s getting harder to do considering Mack has won 24 games and three league titles in three years.

Last season he led the Eagles to their first Top 25 ranking since making the jump to Division I. As a coach or a player, the goal has always been to prove people wrong. Those same people the Eagles wanted to prove wrong the previous three years, seem to have finally gotten the message with the preseason No. 1 votes.

Mack, like Simpson, hoped that the team would be overlooked again. No such luck this time. What the top spot does is put an even bigger target on their backs. To Mack, that’s all the motivation needed.

“You can’t take days off. There are no easy games in the MEAC,” Mack said. “Everybody wants to prove something against you because you’ve had success. We’ve beaten people before and beaten them consistently. The challenge is are you going to rise to the occasion or are you going to succumb?”

NOTES: NCCU had seven players selected to all-conference preseason first team. On offense, Simpson and sophomore left tackle Nick Leverett were selected. Defensive representatives were defensive linemen Ja’Quan Smith and Antonio Brown, linebacker Reggie Hunter, safety Alden McClellon and punter Nathaniel Tilque.

Jonas Pope IV: 919-419-7001, @JEPopeIV