It has been 10 years since the North Carolina Central football team was crowned HBCU national champions.
When the Eagles (9-2) meet Grambling (10-1) on Saturday in the second Celebration Bowl pitting the MEAC and SWAC champions at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, they will be vying for their third overall HBCU national championship.
NCCU third-year head coach Jerry Mack wasn’t initially on board with the MEAC giving up its automatic bid to the FCS playoffs to play in the game.
“At first I was kind of confused about what exactly the Celebration Bowl was going to have to offer over the national playoffs,” said Mack. “But now… I really think we’re setting the precedence with the Celebration Bowl and a team making the national playoffs.
“In this day and age, anytime you have a chance for your programs to increase their revenue and get out of the red and to build their brand, I think you have to look at the whole landscape and see what the best model for your conference is.”
The MEAC and SWAC each receive a $1 million payout. The game kicks off the bowl season and will air on ABC.
Grambling has one of the great brands in college football history and this year they have a good football team.
Ole Miss transfer quarterback DeVante Kincade triggers the offense. He leads FCS in touchdowns to interceptions (30-3) and is completing 66 percent of his passes. Kincade is a passer first, but is also a threat to run.
The Eagles will have to try to stop a Tigers running game that averages 204 yards per game and a passing game that features wide receiver Chad Williams, who has caught 86 passes and is fifth in FCS in receiving yards (1,278).
“Explosive. That’s the word that comes to my mind when I think about Grambling,” Mack said.
As great as the Tigers are offensively, they have yet to see a defense like NCCU’s, which shut down North Carolina A&T running back Tarik Cohen, holding him to just 82 yards rushing on 23 carries in their victory over the Aggies on Nov. 19.
The Eagles cannot allow Kincade to sit in the pocket and will look to pressure him in the form of bookends Frederick Henry-Ajudua and Antonio Brown, who have combined for 14.5 sacks.
The Eagles are also very good offensively, averaging 392 yards. They are led by quarterback Malcolm Bell, who is a threat to pass and run. He has completed 60 percent of his passes for 2,191 yards with 16 touchdowns and has also rushed for 544 yards and nine touchdowns.
So with the HBCU championship on the line, a potentially large crowd and the game being televised on ABC, what will Mack tell his team prior to the game?
“Make sure we stay focused as a team and don’t let the stage be too big for us.”
Donal Ware hosts the nationally syndicated sports talk radio program “FROM THE PRESS BOX TO PRESS ROW,” which can be heard locally on Saturday mornings on Buzz Sports Radio and WAUG and on SiriusXM.
North Carolina Central vs. Grambling
When: Noon Saturday
Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta, Ga.