Of all the wins, all the championships in N.C. Central’s proud history, there’s a pretty good argument to be made that none was bigger than this. Because of what was at stake. Because of what was on the line. And, more than anything, because of who it was against: N.C. A&T.
After a third straight win over the Aggies, the Eagles are undisputed, undefeated MEAC champions, and unlike the past two years, that title won’t be shared with anyone else. There are no quirky tiebreakers this year: No. 20 N.C. Central is headed to Atlanta for the Celebration Bowl after Saturday’s 42-21 win over No. 9 N.C. A&T, a margin flattered by an Aggies touchdown in the final seconds but as authoritative a win as the Eagles have had in this series in these players’ lifetimes.
“There’s something about going undefeated in the MEAC and beating the top team that everybody loves so much,” said N.C. Central running back Dorrel McClain, who played at Panther Creek and scored three touchdowns Saturday. “Being the underdog, it’s good to shove it in their face.”
N.C. Central’s wins over A&T the past two seasons earned the Eagles a share of the MEAC title, but they lost a five-way tiebreaker for the automatic FCS playoffs bid in 2014 and a three-way tiebreaker for the Celebration Bowl berth last year – to N.C. A&T, curiously enough.
There was no controversy Saturday, no contrived mathematics and no doubt. N.C A&T might yet still end up in the FCS playoffs as an at-large team, and should if there’s any justice, having beaten Kent State and losing only to Tulsa and N.C. Central. The Eagles’ case would have been iffier with a loss, but they never let it even come under consideration.
“We don’t have to share it anymore,” N.C. Central coach Jerry Mack said. “We did what we set out to do. We wanted to be greedy.”
Other than a red-zone interception on their first drive, the Eagles dictated play and dominated on both sides of the ball. That was less of a surprise on defense – where N.C. A&T was down to its third-string quarterback, allowing N.C. Central to focus on record-setting running back Tarik Cohen – than on offense, where Eagles quarterback Malcolm Bell ran wild against the MEAC’s best defense, running for 131 yards, throwing for 184 and accounting for three touchdowns.
“Three rings is a lot,” Bell said. “It means a lot to me. It’s crazy. I can’t even describe it.”
In a mere decade since starting the transition from Division II, the Eagles have now made an NCAA basketball tournament appearance – a 2014 first-round loss to Iowa State, and the Eagles would have had a chance to beat just about any other No. 3 seed – won two MEAC regular-season basketball titles, entered the top 25 of the FCS rankings, won three MEAC football titles in three seasons under Mack and will now play for the Division I HBCU national title having won one in Division II in 2006. That’s an extraordinary amount of achievement for a school that’s really just getting started in Division I.
As big as the 2014 basketball season was – with the win over N.C. State, MEAC championship and NCAA tournament berth – this football season could be even bigger, with the opportunity to play in the Georgia Dome on Dec. 17 and the utter dominance in this rivalry that has endured across different conferences and levels over time and now thrives on even terms.
There were so many people at O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium on Saturday, N.C. Central sold a few thousand tickets to sit on the lawn in the north end zone, and there were hundreds of people standing on hills on campus, outside the stadium fence, just trying to get a glimpse. Twice, they had to tell people that if they didn’t stop standing in the aisles, the state fire marshal would stop the game.
It was that crowded. So many people wanted to witness this, even if few expected it to be the coronation it turned out to be.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock