MikeCheck: As NCAA D-II playoffs kick off for Bowie State and Miles, HBCU championship business at stake Saturday in MEAC and SWAC

RALEIGH, N.C. – When Donal Ware and I hooked up in Birmingham four months ago at the Southwestern Athletic Conference football media day, we were both fairly certain the 2019 Celebration Bowl was destined for a rematch of last year’s game that decided the HBCU national championship.

Now, with a month left before the SWAC and Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champions meet Dec. 21 at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, there’s a major issue at hand. Neither SWAC defending conference champion Alcorn State nor two-time defending HBCU national champion North Carolina A&T have settled anything yet in their respective conferences.

Both teams have the inside track in the SWAC and MEAC, and control their own destiny entering their final week of regular-season play, respectively. So there’s a strong chance both could end up right back in Atlanta next month, a year after the Aggies survived the Braves’ rally for a thrilling 24-22 victory.

There’s also a solid chance neither gets back, with N.C. A&T currently tied with South Carolina State atop the MEAC standings entering Saturday. If the Aggies defeat rival North Carolina Central on Saturday, they’d win the MEAC’s bid to the Celebration Bowl for a third straight season. A N.C. A&T loss coupled with a S.C. State road win at Norfolk State would send the Bulldogs to Atlanta.

Meanwhile, Alcorn State has locked up an unprecedented sixth straight SWAC East division title, but needs a win Saturday at Jackson State to secure homefield advantage for a second straight year in the Dec. 7 conference championship game. One way or another, the Braves’ opponent in the SWAC title game will be the winner of the Nov. 30 Bayou Classic in New Orleans, where Southern and Grambling State will be playing for the East division crown.

Bayou Classic

NEW ORLEANS, LA – NOVEMBER 24: Southern University Jaguars quarterback Ladarius Skelton (8) attempts to break free from Grambling State Tigers defensive back Danquarian Fields (7) during the 45th annual State Farm Bayou Classic game between the Southern Jaguars and the Grambling State Tigers. Photo by Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images.

The combination of an Alcorn State loss to Jackson State on Saturday and a Grambling win over Southern the following week would shift the SWAC championship game to Eddie Robinson Stadium, where the Tigers beat Alcorn in overtime two weeks ago. So there’s plenty of business left to settle.

And if that wasn’t complicated enough, we’re headed down a path where the team that ultimately wins the nationally televised Celebration Bowl might not even be the outright HBCU national champion.

That’s because Florida A&M, the consensus No. 1 ranked team in Boxtorow’s HBCU coaches and media polls the past month, is ineligible for a MEAC title and postseason play this season while under NCAA sanctions. Still, should the Rattlers win Saturday’s Florida Classic in Orlando against rival Bethune-Cookman, they’ll likely maintain their premium poll position.

Hence, FAMU would have essentially run the table in the MEAC and staked its claim as national champs regardless of what happens on the football field next month in Atlanta. Welcome to the chaos that lines the path of HBCU football’s sprint to the finish line.

“We say it week after week – our goals are still in front of us,” insisted FAMU coach Willie Simmons, whose team is dealing with repercussions from NCAA violations committed under previous coaches, players and athletic administrators. “We show up and work every week with that mindset.”

That left Ware and I with plenty to unpack and dive into across the HBCU football landscape when we reconnected on the historic campus of Saint Augustine’s University. Ware is a syndicated sports and culture radio personality on SiriusXM, curator of the Boxtowrow HBCU national polls and play-by-play broadcaster for N.C. A&T football.

We’ve both covered black college football for parts of three decades and are HBCU graduates. We figured we’d seen just about everything – except a season that’s featured as much drama and as many stunning storylines as this one has delivered. And just keeps delivering.

In our latest Grind City Media HBCU Football video update, we break down the race to the Celebration Bowl, set the stage for No. 2-ranked Bowie State’s chances in the NCAA Division II playoffs and handicap the black college coaching hot seat as we brace for black college football’s postseason.

Yep, HBCU football is every bit as hot today as those July temperatures were back in Birmingham.

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