From out of nowhere, the Savannah State football team became the surprise of the MEAC conference in 2016 and one of the biggest surprises in FCS football.
The Tigers finished only 3-7, but that was more wins than they had the previous three seasons combined.
When something like that happens, a team like Savannah State goes from having no expectations to seeing them skyrocket.
If the Tigers continue that rate of progress, five wins or even a winning 6-5 record appear reachable.
But second-year head coach Erik Raeburn isn’t sure how much different his team will look as it heads into the 2017 season, which begins Saturday at Appalachian State.
“I think we showed improvement last year, and a lot of people are excited, but the reality is we only won three games,” Raeburn said. “While we’re positive about the progress we made last year, we’re realistic, too, that there’s still a big gap between us and the top teams in the league. Our goal is to try to build on the improvements we made last year in the hope that we can compete with anyone in our league.”
Raeburn also isn’t sure how other teams will treat the Tigers this season. Before Raeburn arrived, the Tigers could almost be penciled in as a win on opponents’ schedules, but wins over Bethune-Cookman, Howard and Norfolk State last season may have changed their tunes.
“I hope they feel that way,” Raeburn said about gaining more pregame respect. “I hope people look at our program differently. I truly believe we’re better than we were a year ago. But we won’t know for sure how that’ll translate into wins and losses until after the season’s over.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Raeburn isn’t jumping ahead. Wins against Appalachian State on Saturday and Montana on Sept. 16 might be farfetched, but the Tigers have a chance to make a statement in the MEAC when they open at home Sept. 23 against Florida A&M. But even with an extra week to prepare this preseason, Raeburn isn’t putting all of his eggs in that basket. The Tigers’ focus this preseason hasn’t changed from last year.
“We really didn’t spend much time on them,” the coach said on whether he spent any time preparing for the Rattlers this preseason. “We try to spend all of our preseason focus on us. We’re very young. We’ve got a bunch of true freshmen who are going to play, we’ve got a bunch of sophomores who are going to play, and we’ve got a couple older guys who are starting for the first time. Because of our inexperience, we try to put all the focus in the preseason just on us, just trying to make sure we’re executing our system the way it’s supposed to be executed.”
Infusion of talent
Savannah State fans have more reason to be excited about the future after Raeburn and his staff compiled a 2017 recruiting class ranked 10th by Boxtorow, a radio and media company specializing in historically black colleges and universities. Raeburn will dip into the talent of that recruiting class early this season.
At running back, newcomers Jaylen McCloud and Cedric Cole Jr. will get their share of carries, Jontae Baker and Stavion Stevenson could contribute at tight end, receivers JaMichael Baldwin and Ronnie Stevens have turned heads, and none of the six offensive linemen Raeburn recruited should expect to redshirt.
Raeburn said his team is noticeably faster, and that’s in large part due to his freshmen.
“We did not have great team speed last year, and I wouldn’t say we have great team speed right now, but we are much faster and more athletic than a year ago,” he said.
Bell making noise
The Tigers will turn to sophomore TJ Bell to lead the offense. Bell split time at quarterback as a freshman with Blake Dever, who transferred over the summer. But Bell may well have won the starting job outright anyway, and Raeburn said his team knowing at the outset who the quarterback is has made a difference this preseason.
“The way he has practice, he is so much further ahead than last year when we had camp,” Raeburn said about Bell. “When you have an experienced quarterback, it just makes everyone look better. It helps the line because when you’re an experienced quarterback, you make your read sooner, and it leaves your hands quicker. He’s just making better decisions, and he’s doing it more quickly, and it’s just making everyone on our offense better.”
“(TJ) is more confident,” senior tight end Paris Baker added. “He’s very confident this year. He’s not like a freshman anymore. He’s a captain now.”
With a mix of experience and young talent, Bell should have plenty of weapons to choose from in Year 2 of Raeburn’s offense.
“As a quarterback, you’ve got to have people you can trust,” senior receiver Derek Kirkland said. “You’ve got to depend on receivers, line, running back, everybody. I feel like with him, we’re brothers. We’re all close. We all have each other’s back. A lot of it is more experience, and also we have more speed, and we’ve come together as an offense and we’re closer as a family.”
Now or never
Seniors like Kirkland and Baker would like the breakout year to come sooner rather than later. Savannah State made the decision in April to drop from the FCS to Division II starting in 2019, make this season their second to last in the MEAC.
“I think they’ve all handled it well, as best as you can expect them to handle it,” Raeburn said. “I think the difficulty is, the older guys, they realize by the time this happens, ‘I’ll be done. It doesn’t have an immediate impact on me.’
“I think our guys have taken that mindset that, hey, we’ve got this year and next year to play in the MEAC. This is our last chance that Savannah State can be competitive in that conference. Now they feel like the clock is ticking, and they’re running out of opportunities to prove that. Maybe they feel more of a greater sense of urgency.”