College Sports

NC Central, NC A&T meet again for MEAC title

NCCU's Jalen Wilkes (9) in action against Duke earlier this season.
NCCU's Jalen Wilkes (9) in action against Duke earlier this season.

When North Carolina Central and North Carolina A&T meet on Saturday at Aggie Stadium in Greensboro, it will be the second year in a row that the Aggies-Eagles matchup will decide the MEAC championship.

If the Aggies win, they will be MEAC champions. If the Eagles win, they will share the championship with N.C. A&T. Bethune-Cookman also factors into this scenario. A win by the Wildcats over archrival Florida A&M in the Florida Classic in Orlando on Saturday (coupled with an NCCU win) and the three teams will share the conference title.

Last year, NCCU won 21-14 in Durham, which helped to create an unprecedented five-way championship with the above mentioned teams, plus South Carolina State and Morgan State. The tiebreaker rules enabled Morgan State to represent the MEAC in the FCS Playoffs.

Last year, a bid to the FCS playoffs was on the line. This year, the winner of the MEAC will face the winner of the SWAC (Southwestern Athletic Conference) in the newly created Celebration Bowl. The Celebration Bowl will kickoff the college football bowl season on Dec. 19 at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Each participating team is guaranteed $1 million and the game will be televised live on ABC. This is much more than a MEAC or any other FCS school would receive for participating in the FCS Playoffs.

The Aggie-Eagles rivalry is as big and intense as any in college football.

In case of a three-way tie, the Aggies would represent the MEAC in the Celebration Bowl. North Carolina Central would be eliminated from the tiebreaker formula as the Eagles did not earn any points by winning against FBS or FCS teams, compared to Bethune-Cookman’s (Grambling) and North Carolina A&T’s (Elon) FCS non-conference victories. The only way the Eagles could get the $1 million is to defeat A&T and pull hard for a Florida A&M team that has won only one game this season.

Championship goes through N.C.

Let’s put all of the above in perspective. Who would have thought the MEAC championship would go through North Carolina for a second-straight year? In this, the 45th year of MEAC football, the championship has run through North Carolina – the berth of HBCU football – only nine times.

Going back to when the teams were in the CIAA, they have 13 championships collectively. According to some unofficial research, this will be the seventh time they will play for a conference championship (1950, 1953, 1958, 1963, 1975 and 2014).

The Rivalry

The Aggies-Eagles rivalry is as big and intense as any in college football. The rivalry began in 1924 with the first game ending in a 13-13 tie. At one time the games were played on Thanksgiving Day and men and women would dress up in their best for the event.

In 1994, the game moved to Raleigh and was dubbed the Aggie-Eagle Classic. It was played on Labor Day Weekend at Carter-Finley Stadium, usually on Sunday, following NC State’s Saturday game. The game thrived in Raleigh with 40,000-50,000 regularly in attendance. The last Aggie-Eagle Classic took place in 2005 and the two schools renewed their rivalry in 2007 when NCCU rejoined the MEAC.

Saturday’s game will mark the 87th meeting between the two with A&T leading the series 49-32-5. The teams have split the last 10 meetings.

The matchups

N.C. A&T is ranked No. 14 in the FCS Coaches’ Poll and No. 19 in the FCS STATS Poll and hasn’t lost since the North Carolina game on Sept. 12.

NCCU is hot as well, winners of its last six. Junior quarterback Malcolm Bell, the MEAC’s preseason Offensive Player of the Year, has struggled this year, completing only 52 percent of his passes, averaging 138 yards passing per game with eight touchdowns and eight interceptions. His struggles have forced the coaching staff to play backup Quinn Billerman (Ravenscroft). One of the bright spots on offense for the Eagles has been redshirt running back Dorrel McClain (Panther Creek), who has rushed for 791 yards with seven touchdowns and an average of 5.1 yards per carry.

The Eagles offense will face the second ranked defense in FCS. The Aggies haven’t allowed a player to rush for 100 yards in the last 14 games, which includes UNC’s Elijah Hood, who rushed for 56 yards and averaged 3.5 yards per carry. The Aggies lead FCS in rushing defense, giving up 73.7 yards per game. A&T has given up big plays, having surrendered 11 of 35 yards or more.

The Aggies have the best and most dynamic offensive player in the conference in junior running back Tarik Cohen (Bunn). Last week, Cohen rushed for 132 yards against Delaware State and broke the Aggies’ all-time record for rushing yards in a career. He needs just 1,069 yards to break the MEAC’s all-time rushing record.

The Eagles have struggled on defense at times this year, giving up 361 yards per game, but have had some success against the run (124.8, 2nd in MEAC). Containing Cohen – who ran for 203 yards and two touchdowns against NCCU last year – would boost the Eagles as the Aggies play two freshmen quarterbacks. Redshirt freshman Lamar Raynard has thrown seven touchdowns with one interception, but has struggled the last two games. True freshman Kylil Carter has played well and gives the Aggies a quarterback who can run.

Neither have played in this rivalry.

The most experienced quarterback for the Aggies, senior Kwashaun Quick, who suffered an Achilies injury in the Florida A&M game and has played in just two series since, most likely will not play.

The game could come down to who makes the fewest mistakes, and special teams. N.C. A&T and NCCU are No. 1 and No. 2 in turnover margin (+7 and +6), respectively. Khris Gardin has been spectacular for A&T on punt returns, averaging 22.7 yards per return with two touchdowns. Nigel Macauley has connected on 18-of-26 field goals for NCCU and leads FCS in field goals made per game (2.0). He holds the Eagles’ record for field goals made in a season.

Donal Ware is the host of the national sports talk show “From the Press Box to Press Row” which airs on radio stations across the country (locally on Buzz Sports Radio and WAUG) and SiriusXM.