By Mark F. Gray, Special to the AFRO

All that Bowie State has done over the last three years is win everything except a CIAA championship.  The Bulldogs won the north division and played in consecutive title games in 2015 and 2016 but couldn’t get past Winston Salem State. They won nine games and hosted a national playoff game last season for the first time but didn’t play in the conference championship and will take the field this year with the reigning national HBCU Player of the Year. Yet this golden era of the Black and Gold remains incomplete minus finally winning the conference crown.

This is a championship or bust season for Bowie State and everyone knows it. The Bulldogs were selected by the CIAA coaches and sports information directors as the team to beat in the conference.  However, this year will not be a cakewalk for them.  Virginia State, the reigning CIAA champion, is in their division and they meet on homecoming at Bowie in the first televised nationally televised game on this year’s Aspire TV network schedule. That will be followed by a showdown at Virginia Union, which figures to be their toughest regular season matchups this year.

Bowie State coach Damon Wilson enters the 2018 season needing only a CIAA Championship to solidify his place among the elite coaches in the nation. (Courtesy Photo)

It is a program that is revered and respected and has gained more national attention since 2015 after being the butt of jokes for years. Over the past three seasons the Bulldogs are 25-9 and they have become the offensive standard bearer in the CIAA.  They led the nation in total offense and obliterated the Division II statistics in 2018 despite not winning the CIAA North Division. Bowie State has become an attraction as their passing game has become as prolific – under multiple quarterbacks – in Black College Football history.

As their success has grown so has their recruiting. Bowie State talent is comparable to any program nationwide in Division II. They averaged 566 yards total offense and 54 points per game in 2017.  The balanced offense was fourth nationally in passing yards at just under 336 which was complemented by an average of 229.5 rushing that was second in the CIAA.

The Bulldogs return with 45 players, including 12 starters, from last year’s 9-2 team.  After another stellar recruiting class Bowie State’s talent pool is deeper than it has ever been. They no longer rush difference making players onto the field.  There is enough talent throughout the program that Bowie State should remain a contender – especially in the CIAA – as their footprint continues to grow around the state and across the nation while giving them a year to acclimate themselves.  Maryland’s oldest HBCU can now boast having the top Division II program in the state which makes them a destination for players of that caliber when they were once only a last resort.

Junior Quarterback Amir Hall could be the greatest player in the history of their program.  In 2017 he won the Deacon Jones Award as the national HBCU Player of the Year and is first team preseason Division II all-American for 2018.  Hall was second nationally in total offense accounting for almost 357 yards per contest and fourth in passing at 319.8.  Hall holds nearly every individual record in Bowie State’s history yet the only thing that remains to solidify his legacy is to capture the elusive CIAA championship.

Bowie State’s regular season success has raised the level of expectations all over campus. Managing the weight of those expectations is now the challenge for head coach Damon Wilson who needs to only add the CIAA championship to his resume to earn his place nationally amongst the elite coaches in Division II.