Power shifts from Tigers to Lions

When the SWAC preseason football poll was released in late July, it was well expected that a team playing this Saturday in Grambling, La., would be in first place in the Western Division.

Nothing less could be expected out of Grambling State. The Tigers came into the season the defending conference champions with 15 starters returning on both sides of the ball combined. Both their quarterbacks are sophomores with plenty of experience as freshmen. One of the running backs led the SWAC in rushing a season ago.

With an experienced cast back for the Tigers, there was no reason for many to believe that Arkansas-Pine Bluff could unseat them in the West. But UAPB wasn’t far off from glory to begin with.

The Golden Lions were just a win away from going to the SWAC championship game last season. Close losses to Alabama A&M and Grambling State eventually did them in.

They came into this season blessed with more experience — 10 starters on each side of the ball, to be exact. Among the returnees: A quarterback who was named SWAC Freshman of the Year, two experienced running backs and two linebackers each with 100-plus tackles in a season.

Factor in the nation’s sack leader and a wide receiver leading the team after missing all of 2011 with a hamstring injury, and the Lions have done what could only make sense to them — rise to the top of the West.

When UAPB and Grambling meet Saturday, the storyline will not be what many expected. The power that often rests within black college football’s most storied program is now felt within the very group that was denied by Grambling a year ago. UAPB will play in Eddie Robinson Stadium as the champion, not the contender.

While UAPB proved forecasters wrong, so did Grambling. The Tigers didn’t come close to contending at all this season.

Why is anyone’s guess. But their play may provide some clues.

They haven’t been strong running the ball this season, not even with Roberts in the lineup. He averaged only 29.6 yards per game before a knee injury limited him to five games.

Maybe the offensive line is to be blamed for that. The group hasn’t pass-protected for the quarterbacks very well, and they may be struggling to open up holes for their running backs.

Frank Rivers, who shares time with D.J. Williams under center, leads the team in total offense with 91.9 yards per game. Yes, that’s one player in a two-quarterback system, but when that statistic is more than double the yards the leading rusher averages, it only means trouble for the offense.

Defensively, it’s a sad state of affairs. Teams have posted 394.7 yards of offense against the Tigers.

One doesn’t have to look beyond two numbers to know that something isn’t right at Grambling — 1-8. That’s the Tigers’ record.

That’s not what the Tigers are used to. Nor are many used to the idea of UAPB being a division champion.

But in 2012, it cannot be argued that the Golden Lions have the power.

I.C. Murrell is the sports editor of The Commercial. Email him at imurrell@pbcommercial.com.