MEMPHIS – The two most accomplished and dominant Black College football teams in the country will enter Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta for Saturday’s Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl.
One will emerge as the 2018 HBCU national champion.
Those are the stakes when Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference winner North Carolina A&T (9-2) meets Southwestern Athletic Conference titlist Alcorn State (9-3) Saturday on ABC to kick off the national bowl schedule. Here are five things to know about the programs and the game entering the epic showdown.
1. The Payout
I wrote last week why playing in the Celebration Bowl was more beneficial for N.C. A&T, which could have otherwise done plenty of damage in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs that reach the semifinal round also on Saturday. Basically, it boils down to economics and exposure.
The ESPN-run Celebration Bowl reportedly pays out $1 million each to the MEAC and SWAC, with $500,000 apiece going to N.C. A&T and Alcorn State. While majority of the three dozen bowl games are televised on secondary national networks, the Celebration Bowl gets marquee treatment in ABC’s opening slot.
2. The Paths
In a sense, both the Aggies and Braves have seen their respective year come full circle. N.C. A&T beat Grambling in last year’s Celebration Bowl to cap the program’s first 12-0 season, and is back to defend its HBCU national title. The Aggies have essentially made Atlanta their second home, with this marking the third time in the Bowl’s four-year history that they’ve participated.
A pair of upset losses at home on field goals to Morgan State and Florida A&M are the only blemishes on a regular-season run that saw N.C. A&T knock off perennial FCS power Jacksonville State in the opener and also upset FBS’s East Carolina. This is the Aggies’ fourth MEAC title in five years.
“When I got the job, I wasn’t given the keys to a (beat-up) Volkswagen,” said first-year Aggies coach Sam Washington, the MEAC coach of the year. “I was given the keys to a very fine football team.”
Not a day passes without Alcorn State coach Fred McNair referring to how much his team has grown since their last trip to Atlanta, which resulted in a 41-0 loss in the season opener at Georgia Tech. The Braves regrouped quickly and marched to their fifth consecutive SWAC East Division title.
They also had an encouraging showing by putting up 42 points in a road loss at FBS independent New Mexico State late in the season. A 28-25 loss in five overtimes on Oct. 6 against Alabama State was Alcorn State’s lone setback to an FCS and conference opponent this season. The Braves punched their ticket to Atlanta with a 37-28 win over Southern in the Dec. 1 SWAC championship game.
“It feels amazing,” quarterback Noah Johnson said of making the Celebration Bowl. “We weren’t going to be denied. I’m sorry. I don’t care who walked into this building, we weren’t going to be denied.”
3. The Playmakers
These teams comprise a ‘Who’s Who’ of all-conference teams and FCS All-Americans. For Alcorn State, it starts with Johnson, the SWAC offensive player of the year and a dual-threat QB who is one of the most efficient signal-callers in the nation. Under the tutelage of former West Virginia University star and current Braves’ quarterback coach Pat White, Johnson took his game to another level. He’s accounted for 3,039 yards and 24 touchdowns this season. Tailback De’Shawn Waller was the SWAC’s newcomer of the year after rushing for 1,048 yards and 12 TDs.
Alcorn State is equally as dominant on defense, anchored by linemen Terry Whittington and Sterling Shippy. They fortify a unit that ranked first in FCS in sacks and tackles for losses, and were top six in rushing defense and total defense.
Senior QB Lamar Raynard won his first 29 games as the starter before his streak was snapped earlier this season. But there’s not a more proven and experienced winner at the position in the FCS ranks. Senior tailback Marquell Cartwright, fresh off back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons, is the engine that drives an offense that topped 300 rushing yards twice this season behind FCS First-Team All-American offensive lineman Micah Shaw. Much like their upcoming opponent, the Aggies’ most impactful stars just might be on the defensive side.
MEAC defensive player of the year and FCS First-Team All-American Darryl Johnson led the league in sacks (10.5) and tackles for loss (18.5). Mac McCain III is one of the best cover cornerbacks in the country, and return specialist Malik Wilson has run back three kickoffs for TDs this season on returns of 100, 99 and 98 yards.
4. The Pedigree
The Aggies and Braves have combined to send more than 80 players to the NFL. N.C. A&T’s alumni roster of NFL standouts includes Chicago Bears breakout tailback Tarik Cohen, who is in the midst of an All Pro season. The Aggies also boast Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive end Elvin Bethea and lineman Dwaine Board, who won four Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers in the 1980s.
The Braves have a long list of NFL contributors, most notably Super Bowl champion receiver Donald Driver of the Green Bay Packers and the late Steve McNair, the Tennessee Titans’ All-Pro quarterback who was a younger brother of Alcorn State’s current head coach. Driver and Steve McNair were nominated for induction with the latest class of Hall of Fame candidates.
5. The Prediction
To suggest these are two evenly-matched teams would be a major understatement. They both can win shootouts or dominate with defensive shutouts. Both have elite running games and are great defensively against the run. They both have NFL-bound pass rushers.
The Aggies aim to cap one of the best five-year runs in NCAA football history, while the Braves are hungry to avenge a 2014 Celebration Bowl loss to the Aggies and complete a breakthrough championship season. The difference on this stage will be experience. The Braves are understandably happy to finally get back to Atlanta. The Aggies see it as another business trip. A slight edge goes to N.C. A&T’s big-play defense and special teams.
Aggies win, 27-21.
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