Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Three years ago, Bethune-Cookman took the big step in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference standings.
Norfolk State was the surprise two years ago.
Last season, Howard, North Carolina A&T and North Carolina Central moved up quickly.
MEAC football isn't what it used to be. It's bigger (11 schools), deeper, full of good coaches and even more of a grueling fight to the finish.
Who will be the surprise in 2013?
Defending champion Bethune-Cookman has holes to fill at wide receiver, linebacker and safety, but the Wildcats are 21-3 in conference games under coach Brian Jenkins, and has the newcomers and depth to be the league favorite.
South Carolina State hopes to return to being a force. The Bulldogs are coming off their first losing season in 12 years. Many of the team's starting positions are up for grabs in the spring.
Florida A&M no longer has MEAC legend Joe Taylor patrolling the sideline, but new coach Earl Holmes, the former defensive coordinator, prefers an aggressive style on defense, and should instill it on the offensive side with veteran quarterback Damien Fleming coming off a strong season.
There's a lot of pressure on coach Donovan Rose to get Hampton back to a title- contending level. He was retained after last season, but is only 21-22 in his four seasons with the former MEAC power.
North Carolina A&T is coming off a 7-4 season, but isn't allowed to have spring practices because of NCAA APR penalties.
OH, YES, THEM AGAIN
Howard quarterback Greg McGee is a terrific leader. This year, the junior left-hander is seeking more of a championship level of play.
North Carolina A&T All-MEAC cornerback D'Vonte Graham scored touchdowns off four different returns last year: a blocked field goal, a punt, a fumble and an interception.
Most of the conference's top rushers were seniors last season, but No. 2 rusher Isidore Jackson of Bethune-Cookman returns off a 1,069-yard campaign. He has terrific speed to work behind Terrance Hackney and the rest of the Wildcats' offensive line.
Norfolk State linebacker Lynden Trail made only three starts as a redshirt sophomore last season, but led the team in tackles (70), tackles for loss (17), sacks (six), QB hurries (eight) and fumble recoveries (two). Oh yes, he's 6- foot-7, 250 pounds.
North Carolina Central middle linebacker Tazmon "Taz" Foster didn't qualify for the MEAC leaders, but if he had, he would have been the conference leader in tackles per game. He had 80 in eight games.
South Carolina State's Austin Smith is switching from defensive back to wide receiver after a redshirt season and should be a difference maker this season.
Morgan State will looks to wide receiver Andrew King to provide increased production.
With seven touchdowns, Florida A&M running back James Owens played well in a reserve role last season after he missed the 2011 campaign. Expect him to have a big 2013 season.
Although Delaware State is replacing MEAC Offensive Player of the Year Nick Elko at quarterback, the competition is especially fierce at running back. Sophomores Dae-Hon Cheung and Nagee Jackson and junior Malcolm Williams each posted a 100-yard rushing game last season.
Savannah State's initial recruitment of linebacker Darius Allison started with a Tigers coach mistakenly calling the wrong number. After a redshirt season, the transfer from Nassau Community College is ready to put up the right numbers for a weak defense.
Hampton quarterbacks threw for 17 interceptions with only 10 touchdown tosses last season. Brian Swain, Najee Tyler and Jaylin Williamson were part of the problem. Each hopes to be a solution this season.
At Morgan State, the key battle will once again be at quarterback. The candidates are Rob Council, Seth Higgins and Moses Skillon in addition to newcomers Ricky Fisk and Chris Clack.
SPRING PRACTICE DATES
Bethune-Cookman: March 23-April 13
Delaware State: March 19-April 13
Florida A&M: March 18-April 6
Hampton: March 19-April 12
Howard: March 18-April 13
Morgan State: March 25-April 18
Norfolk State: March 22-April 19
North Carolina A&T: No spring practices (NCAA sanctions)
North Carolina Central: March 19-April 12
Savannah State: March 20-April 13
South Carolina State: March 19-April 13