MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — The Alabama State Hornets are tired of just coming close.
For the third year in a row, the Hornets are favored to win the Southwestern Athletic Conference East Division, where they've at least tied for the best record three of the past four seasons. That's netted only one trip to the SWAC championship game, a loss in 2010.
Alabama State coach Reggie Barlow says "it only counts in horseshoes when you're close." But he's hoping his players have learned from the near misses.
They've posted four consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 1967-70.
Alabama State returns nine starters on defense and seven on offense.
Quarterback Daniel Duhart is back, along with leading receiver Earl Lucas, top tackler Kourtney Berry and all-conference defensive lineman Derrick Billups.
Add for 1st Ld-Writethru
Here are five things to watch for in Alabama State's season:
GETTING OVER THE HUMP: The Hornets have posted three consecutive 7-2 records in SWAC play. The closest they've come to a title was in 2010 when Alabama State lost 11-6 to Texas Southern in the championship game. A Game 2 loss to Jackson State proved hard to overcome in 2013.
REPLACING CROWELL: All-SWAC running back Isaiah Crowell left after his junior season and signed with the Cleveland Browns as a free agent. Malcolm Cyrus also had a solid year, gaining 759 yards. "Even with Isaiah last year, Malcolm still was the guy that had the most explosive plays offensively," Barlow said, calling him "just a good all-around player."
STRONG DEFENSE: Barlow expects defense to be the strength of this team. Berry racked up 105 tackles and seven sacks. Billups had 13 tackles for loss and forced three fumbles. Like those two, defensive back Deandre Rashada is a preseason first-team All-SWAC pick.
PLAYMAKERS: Cyrus said practicing against what he considers the SWAC's best defense can only make the offense better. "We've got playmakers all around," he said.
CHEMISTRY: Barlow likes this team for more than talent. "It's a true team," he said. "There's no individualizing. It's a bunch of guys that are committed to the team concept."