The college football regular season has ended and the MEAC champions, No.18 North Carolina Central University Eagles (9-2), will face the SWAC champions, No.14 Grambling State University Tigers (10-1), in the second annual Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl to begin the college football bowl season in Atlanta at the Georgia Dome.
But this game, a clash of HBCU titans, airing on ABC at noon on Dec. 17, is one for college football fans, bowl game aficionados and lovers of Black college culture. While at the same time it means a boost for predominantly African-American institutions.
“What we’ve created is an accessible bowl game that you can not just have to watch on TV, but you can actually attend,” executive director of the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl, John T. Grant said. “That’s the difference. This is a bowl game for the fans that is accessible for fans of HBCU’s. We believe that when you expose young people, their families and their parents to an environment like this that they can look and consider HBCUs as a destination for their children.”
Last year, the North Carolina A&T Aggies defeated the Alcorn State Braves 41-34. More than 14.8 million viewers watched that game while 35,528 fans attended. The following academic year, NC A&T and Alcorn State received a near 90% increase in applications.
“The exposure [the schools] receive is immeasurable,” Grant said. “Bowl games are about creating exposure for the universities and the recruitment of students, and that’s where the win-win is… The Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl brings that exposure on a national stage for these two conferences, not just the schools that participate.”
NCCU had shared the conference championship with NC A&T for the past two seasons, but this year they were able to secure sole ownership of the MEAC title and represent the conference in the bowl game by defeating the defending champion Aggies 42-21.
Head coach Jerry Mack was named the MEAC Coach of the Year and is a finalist for the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award. Mack has led the team to it’s first FCS national ranking in school history.
“The last couple of years we’ve been able to have success as a program, but I think this year we got over the hump,” Mack said. “I’m excited about having the opportunity to come here on a national stage and showcase what North Carolina Central has to offer.”
The Eagles offense averages 30.7 points and holds it’s opponents to 24.1. The key player to watch for the Eagles is dual-threat quarterback Malcolm Bell. The redshirt senior completed 60.3 percent of his passes this season while throwing for 2,191 yards, 16 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Bell also rushed for 544 yards and nine touchdowns.
Bell achieved a huge milestone this season as he moved up to second place on the NCCU all-time passing yards (6,191) list behind Earl “Air” Harvey.
Tigers head coach Broderick Fobbs earned his third consecutive SWAC Coach of the Year award, and is also a finalist for the Eddie Robinson Award.
Grambling was shut out in the first half of the SWAC championship game, but managed to come from behind to defeat last year’s runner up Alcorn State 27-20 and earn their spot in the bowl game.
“This is two titans clashing. Two really good coaching staffs and two really good programs that are doing an exceptional job in this college football atmosphere,” Fobbs said.
This year’s Tigers team is loaded with talent. In addition to their award winning coach, the team has 14 All-Conference selections and both the SWAC offensive and defensive players of the year in quarterback DeVante Kincade and defensive lineman Donovan McCray.
The Tigers were the only FCS team to have both a top five offense and defense.
Their offense averaged 500.5 yards per game and 41.45 points per game. Kincade completed 66.1 percent of his passes for 2,864 yards, 29 passing touchdowns, six rushing touchdowns and two interceptions. The defense held opponents to just 15.6 points per game. Through the entire season, teams only scored nine rushing touchdowns and 10 passing touchdowns against them.
In addition to the game, an HBCU football game wouldn’t be complete without the show between the show. The NCCU “Sound Machine” and The Grambling State University World Famed Tiger Marching Band will perform at halftime.
Thousands of fans, students and alumni are expected to show up in support of the Eagles and Tigers and even more will be watching the two HBCUs battle for conference bragging rights and a trophy to return to campus.