JOHN ZENOR,AP Sports Writer
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Linebacker Jer-ryan Harris still isn’t convinced Arkansas-Pine Bluff has made believers out of its Southwestern Athletic Conference rivals.
The Golden Lions won their first outright SWAC title last season and are the picks to repeat as West Division champions going into this season but now feel they must prove they’re not one-year wonders.
“I believe last season got us an added respect level but at the same time, I also feel like teams are still kind of looking at it like that was luck,” Harris said Monday at SWAC media day. “I believe that in order for us to actually get the respect we deserve, we will have to repeat. That’s kind of the mind-set all the players have.”
The results of balloting by league coaches and sports information directors and media members made it evident Pine Bluff’s peers are starting to come around. The Golden Lions are led by preseason SWAC offensive player of the year Ben Anderson at quarterback and had nine players picked as first-team all-conference.
East Division favorite Alabama State was next with five first-team selections.
Jackson State defensive back Qua Cox was picked as the top defensive player.
Arkansas-Pine Bluff received 14 of the 24 first-place votes in the West, well ahead of traditional powers Southern (six) and Grambling State (one).
The Golden Lions’ only previous championship was a four-way tie for first in 1966.
Coach Monte Coleman said his players don’t need to be told the challenges of repeating.
“I’ve got a very smart football team,” said Coleman, who spent 16 seasons with the NFL’s Washington Redskins. “They understand the concept of winning. They understand the concept of being champions. They know that folks are going to be coming to knock them off. We’ve got to be consistent. That’s what I’ll tell them. The main ingredient is we’ve got to outwork our opponents. We expect to stay on top but we have to work even harder than what we did to get on top to stay there.”
In the East, Alabama State has at least shared each of the past three titles but only went to the championship game once, losing in 2010.
“Words couldn’t explain how hungry we are right now,” center Edmund Davis said. “It’s kind of frustrating knowing that you can’t play for a championship. Guys are coming out working, committed to the cause and just want to dominate the opponent and get back to the championship.”
Traditional power Grambling State was picked fourth in the five-team West. The Tigers entered last season as the preseason pick to repeat as champions but wound up going 1-10 and losing all nine SWAC games.
“They all understand what’s at stake,” Grambling coach Doug Williams said. “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.”