ATLANTA – All things considered, 371 days is a long time to stew on revenge.
So that’s one reason Alcorn State isn’t dragging old baggage into Saturday’s trip to Atlanta, where its football season culminates for the third time in four years at the Celebration Bowl.
Another reason – and perhaps a far more pertinent one – is that coach Fred McNair’s Braves see this year’s venture as a new opportunity to cap a historic season with a crowning achievement all its own. Facing the same North Carolina A&T Aggies yet again with a black college national championship on the line doesn’t detract from Alcorn State’s mission.
The Braves shouldn’t be haunted by past history, including last season’s 24-22 Celebration Bowl loss to N.C. A&T on a controversial two-point conversion play that proved the difference in the outcome. As sweet as it would be to avenge that loss, Alcorn State has a new set of key playmakers in place who contributed little or nothing during last season’s setback in Atlanta.
“Actually, I didn’t play in that game last year because I was a recruit,” said junior defensive back Juwan Taylor, a junior college transfer who helped anchor one of FCS football’s stingiest defenses this season. “But looking at it, I think we just have to take care of the small things, stay healthy and we’ll be fine. I feel so blessed right now (to play in Saturday’s game). I can’t even explain it.”
That’s the kind of fresh spark the Braves have relied on throughout a turbulent season.
First, a group of key newcomers and backups filled major voids after a big stretch of early injuries to returning standouts, including ailments that sidelined the Southwestern Athletic Conference’s Preseason Offensive Player of the Year in quarterback Noah Johnson and All-SWAC running back De’Shawn Waller.
But looking at it, I think we just have to take care of the small things, stay healthy and we’ll be fine. I feel so blessed right now (to play in Saturday’s game). I can’t even explain it.
And then, Alcorn State kept rolling with those productive replacements in Taylor, breakout quarterback Felix Harper and freshman tailback Niko Duffy as the team carried its momentum all the way to an unprecedented sixth straight SWAC East Division title. After knocking off West division winner Southern on Dec. 7 for the second consecutive year in the SWAC Championship game, the Braves (9-3) punched their return ticket to Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the Celebration Bowl.
By now, Atlanta’s marquee HBCU showcase must feel like home for the Braves and two-time defending national champion Aggies (8-3), who meet for the third time in the game’s five-year history. N.C. A&T posted the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference’s second-best record at 6-2, but emerged because Florida A&M (7-1) was ineligible for a league title and 2019 postseason play while under NCAA sanctions.
I know very (few) champions that 3-peat, and I’ve been in this business for a very long time. It’s something that just doesn’t happen, so it’s special. We look forward to the opportunity of defending our title.
So even in the midst of a six-year run that’s included five MEAC titles and a shot at a fourth HBCU national title, the Aggies are hardly taking their third straight trip to the Celebration Bowl for granted.
“It’s special,” N.C. A&T coach Sam Washington said of earning another chance to win it all. “I know very (few) champions that 3-peat, and I’ve been in this business for a very long time. It’s something that just doesn’t happen, so it’s special. We look forward to the opportunity of defending our title.”
Although both teams have dominated their respective conferences for much of the decade, the Aggies are justified in taking ownership of the rivalry between them. The Braves have won four of the past six SWAC championships, but faltered both times they faced N.C. A&T in the Celebration Bowl – first a 41-34 setback in the inaugural game in 2015 before coming up short again last year.
After taking care of SWAC business again, McNair believes his team is equipped with the championship mindset and approach to take the next step winning that elusive national title.
“The things that they do over the course of the week – they play hard, they work hard and it pays off,” McNair said. “I told them the biggest thing is when you become champions, you become a target and what it takes to become champions is hard work and dedication. I think these guys are full of that.”
Both teams are back and reloaded with star power. The Aggies and Braves placed a combined 22 players on their respective MEAC and SWAC All-Conference teams. Each team also boasts one of four finalists for the 2019 Deacon Jones Trophy, awarded in February to HBCU’s National Player of the Year.
For the Aggies it’s explosive tailback Jah-Maine Martin, who led FCS nationally averaging 7.8 yards per carry, with nine different touchdown runs of 50 or more yards. Martin led the MEAC in rushing with 1,336 yards and 21 touchdowns to break NFL running back Tarik Cohen’s single-season school record.
For the Braves it’s Harper, who stepped in for the injured Johnson at quarterback four games into the season and never relinquished the job on the way to becoming the SWAC Offensive Player of the Year. Harper passed for 2,613 yards and 30 touchdowns against just eight interceptions.
I told them the biggest thing is when you become champions, you become a target and what it takes to become champions is hard work and dedication. I think these guys are full of that.
Both prolific offenses are supplemented by nationally prominent defenses, with Alcorn leading all of FCS football in turnover takeaways (34) and topping the SWAC in scoring defense and total defense. Meanwhile, N.C. A&T owns the nation’s third-ranked defense, allowing just 270.4 total yards a game.
And if the game should come down to a special teams play, well, both the Aggies and Braves have arguably their respective league’s best placekickers on the roster. Corey McCullough set Alcorn’s career record with 44 made field goals, and N.C. A&T’s Noel Ruiz counts a season-long, 52-yarder among the 21 kicks he’s knocked through the uprights this season.
In other words, this year’s Celebration Bowl matchup is as close as they come. Not even the national HBCU polls could decide which team is tops in the black college ranks heading into Atlanta. The Boxtorow HBCU Coaches Poll has had Alcorn State ranked No. 1 over the last two releases, while the HBCU Media poll has N.C. A&T at the top with just two first-place votes separating the two squads.
Fortunately, the game will decide.