Veteran quarterback Trazon Connley.
Veteran quarterback Trazon Connley is back as the Panthers starter after throwing for 1,478 yards and 11 touchdowns while rushing for 661 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. Credit: Maria Lysaker-USA Today Sports

Prairie View senior running back Ahmad Antoine has been part of an incredible run by the Panthers these past few seasons.

During this stretch, the Panthers have won two SWAC West Division titles and competed in the SWAC Championship Game. But what Antoine doesn’t get is the continued preseason disrespect that seems to always have the Panthers finishing near the bottom of the division and with little to no recognition of their players on the Preseason All-SWAC Team.

It’s no different this season as the Panthers, who finished tied for first place in the division last season and barely missed out on making back-to-back SWAC Championship appearances, are picked to finish fifth out of six teams in the West and only have two players on the Preseason All-SWAC Team and both are second team members.

“Every year we come in and I don’t know why but they always have us below where we should be after we beat a few teams that are in front of us,” said Antoine, who along with offensive lineman Arrington Taylor are the only two Panthers on the preseason all-conference team. “We don’t take that easily. We feel like that is real disrespectful, so we are just trying to come and prove to the SWAC what we are about. And we just have to take that one week at a time.”

The Panthers lost some key players from last season’s team that went 6-5 overall and 5-3 in the SWAC, especially on defense, but they return enough talent to warrant a higher ranking. It starts with dual-threat senior quarterback Trazon Connley, who is back for his second-straight season as the starter.

Connley will be protected by an offensive line that is experienced and deep, with all five starters returning along with four others who made starts up front last season. The Panthers even have some talent back at receiver and tight end, including leading receiver Chris Herron.

Defensively, only four starters return – last season’s top tackler linebacker Keyshawn Johnson, linebacker Tre’Vion Green, defensive back Bryce Turner and free safety Tariq Mulmore — but that’s where head coach Bubba McDowell and his staff focused much of their recruiting efforts to restock a defensive front and secondary that were both hit hard by losses.

Given what the Panthers return and the job the coaching staff did on restocking talent, the feeling on The Hill is that they will outplay their preseason expectations.

“It’s what everybody else thinks and as I tell my guys, you take it for what’s worth,” McDowell said of the preseason ranking. “We can take it as not a good thing and do something about it. Or we don’t worry about it and nothing happens.

“I know our guys have been competitive. We can use that as a tool to bring them up, get better and prove everybody wrong.”

Connley agrees with his coach.

“I really wasn’t surprised because they are always hating on PV and disrespecting us. So, it’s just like I kind saw it and I was like, `This again,’” said Connley. “It’s just a matter of proving that we are who we are, and we know who we are instead of letting that bother us because we don’t really care about it. It’s a preseason thought. It’s not what’s really going to happen.”

What the Panthers are aiming for is a third straight SWAC West title and to win the conference championship game which unlocks the door to play in the Celebration Bowl. It all starts on Sept. 2 when they travel to take on rival Texas Southern in the season opener.

The Tigers, who PV romped, 40-23, in last year’s opener, have been picked to finish third in the SWAC West behind Southern and Alcorn State.

“As I tell them all the time, rankings mean nothing until you actually start playing,” said McDowell, who is entering his second season at the helm and 12th year on the coaching staff. “They put on their pads just like we put on our pads. Now it’s just about what teams are going to go out there and show these writers and everybody that we are a better team. In order for us to do that we have to start fast and finish fast.”

In the meantime, the Panthers are using the low expectations of others as motivation for the season.

“That just lets us know how people think and how they view us,” said Antoine, who had 591 yards and six touchdowns rushing last season. “We come out here, we work hard just like everybody else. We’ve (won the SWAC West) the last two years and you still put us fifth? That’s not a good taste in our mouths. So we are just trying to get that bad taste out by proving everybody wrong.”

I've been with The Defender since August 2019. I'm a long-time sportswriter who has covered everything from college sports to the Texans and Rockets during my 16 years of living in the Houston market....