College Sports

NCCU won’t play for a football title this year. But it is playing for these 5 things.

N.C. Central’s Alden McClellon, right, tackles North Carolina A&T’s Tarik Cohen in the Eagles’ 42-21 win in 2016.
N.C. Central’s Alden McClellon, right, tackles North Carolina A&T’s Tarik Cohen in the Eagles’ 42-21 win in 2016. AP

For the first time since Jerry Mack started coaching at N.C. Central in 2014, the Eagles won’t be playing for a championship in the final game of the regular season.

The Eagles’ (7-3, 5-2 MEAC) hopes for a fourth consecutive league title came to an end last Saturday when Bethune-Cookman connected on a 48-yard Hail Mary pass with no time remaining to beat N.C. Central, 13-10.

N.C. Central’s loss means its opponent this weekend, No. 7 N.C. A&T (10-0, 7-0), clinched at least a share of the MEAC title and earned the Aggies a trip to The Celebration Bowl next month in Atlanta.

The Eagles will end their season Saturday in Greensboro against the undefeated Aggies. But with no championship on the line, here’s what N.C. Central has left to play for:

Eight wins

The Eagles can still win eight games for the third time in four years. N.C. Central went 7-5 in Mack’s first season, then 8-3 in 2015 and 9-3 a year ago. The only other coach to lead the Eagles to three consecutive seasons with at least eight wins was Rod Broadway, now the coach at N.C. A&T. He went 8-2 in 2004, 10-2 in 2005 and 11-1 in 2006, winning a CIAA title and the Black College National Championship with the Eagles.

“An eighth win is something that we will take pride in,” Mack said.

Bragging rights

The Aggies lead their series with N.C. Central 49-34-5, but the Eagles have won the last three games and seven of the last 11. The winner gets bragging rights for the entire year, like the Eagles did in 2015 after beating the Aggies 21-16 in the regular-season finale, even if A&T goes to a bowl game.

N.C. Central senior defensive tackle Roderick Harris grew up in Simpsonville, S.C., and admitted he didn’t know much about this rivalry until he arrived in Durham. He redshirted his freshman year but went to the game in Greensboro that season and quickly realized how big of a game this is.

NCCU senior defensive tackle Roderick Harris talks about what’s left to play for and spoiling A&T’s perfect season.

“The atmosphere is phenomenal,” Harris said. “Playing in this game, it’s unbelievable. Preparing for this game you don’t really need to (hype) yourself up, you should just be ready to go. That’s how big this rivalry is.”

Even Mack, who likes to remain calm before and during games, admits his juices get flowing a bit more when the Eagles play A&T.

“Somewhat,” Mack said. “The things we do during the week we just prepare for them like it’s just another game. But obviously (on game day) you feel the intensity, you feel the rivalry that Saturday morning, so that kind of carries you and feeds you as the game goes on.”

Playing the spoiler

The Aggies are playing for a perfect season on Saturday. A&T has gone undefeated only twice before in school history: 1927 (8-0) and 1943 (4-0). The Aggies have also never won an outright MEAC title under Broadway, but have shared the title in a five-way split in 2014 and a three-way split in 2015.

The Eagles beat A&T 49-21 in Durham last season to capture the outright MEAC title. A win by N.C. Central, along with a Howard victory over Hampton on Saturday, would mean the Aggies would have to again share the league title, this time with the Bison.

“That’s a big motivation,” Harris said. “We want to beat them anyway, just carrying on what we’ve done for the last three years. It would make me feel so much better about this season. Things happen for a reason, but going out with a win, that would make me smile, I’m sure that would make everyone else on the team smile as well.”

The seniors

Only two players on the current N.C. Central roster have lost to N.C. A&T: Harris and senior linebacker Reggie Hunter. Both were redshirts in 2013, the last time the Aggies beat the Eagles.

“For me and the other seniors, this could possibly be our last time putting on pads in our life,” Harris said. “We haven’t lose to these guys in three years. It may not be a championship, it might not be the Celebration Bowl, but it’s an important game for us.”

Their Super Bowl

Mack said this game, the final one of the season, is like their Super Bowl. They want to finish the year on a winning note, something Mack has done two out of his previous three years. A win on Saturday would give Mack something to build on heading into spring practice and the next season.

“That’s something we focus on more than anything,” Mack said. “We’re trying to build for something in 2018.”

With a win, Mack can also improve to a perfect 4-0 against the Aggies. The Eagles are 13-2 on the road in MEAC games since 2014. During his tenure in Durham, Mack has never lost two consecutive MEAC games.

Jonas Pope IV: 919-419-7001, @JEPopeIV

N.C. Central at N.C. A&T

When: 1 p.m., Saturday

Where: Aggie Stadium, Greensboro