- Associated Press - Friday, August 14, 2015

LORMAN, Miss. (AP) - Alcorn State jumped to the top of the Southwestern Athletic Conference heap in a hurry.

The Braves won their first SWAC championship in two decades last year by beating Southern 38-24 in the title game. With veteran quarterback John Gibbs Jr. returning, fourth-year coach Jay Hopson says his team has a chance to win another title.

Gibbs, the league’s co-offensive player of the year last season, threw for 2,842 yards, 21 touchdowns and just seven interceptions in 2014 while also running for 1,006 yards and 11 touchdowns. He’ll have several of his top running backs and receivers returning.

The defense will have several new faces after losing multiple key contributors. The defensive line will be anchored by Darien Moody, who had 10½ tackles for a loss, including 7½ sacks. Warren Gatewood is back in the secondary after a team-high 16 pass breakups last season.

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Some things to watch as Alcorn State tries to repeat as SWAC champions:

HOPSON HAS THINGS ROLLING: Alcorn State has steadily improved since Jay Hopson became the coach before the 2012 season. Now he’s trying to lead the program to back-to-back titles. “The past is the past and I think our guys know that,” Hopson said. “We’ve got a big challenge that we’ve got to prepare for. It’s going to be a hard-fought year, which is how it is every year.”

GIBBS MAKES THE BRAVES GO: Quarterback John Gibbs Jr., a 6-foot-6, 220-pound senior, returns for his final season. He was excellent for the Braves last season, accounting for nearly 4,000 total yards and more than 30 total touchdowns.

NEW FACES ON DEFENSE: Alcorn State lost several of its best defensive players from last season, but shouldn’t be totally helpless. Senior linebacker Damon Watkins returns after making 79 tackles last season. Defensive lineman Darien Moody had 10 ½ tackles for a loss last season and Warren Gatewood led the team with 16 pass breakups in 2014.

RUNNING GAME: Gibbs was the Braves’ leading rusher last season, but he’ll have some help in the backfield. Sophomore Arron Baker returns after running for 725 yards and 13 touchdowns as a freshman.

TOUGH OPENER: Alcorn State has a difficult opener when it plays Georgia Tech on Sept. 3 in Atlanta. The Yellow Jackets won the ACC’s Coastal Division last season and finished with an 11-3 record, including a victory over Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl.

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