by LUT WILLIAMS
The organizers of the Celebration Bowl could not be happier. For the third straight year since the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and Southwestern Athletic Conference decided to match their football champions in a nationally televised bowl event, the game Saturday that kicks off the 2017 bowl season and ends the HBCU football season will determine the black college national champion.
HOW WE GOT HERE
The 12 noon showdown between head coach Rod Broadway’s undefeated (11-0) MEAC champion North Carolina A&T Aggies and head coach Broderick Fobbs’ 11-1 SWAC champion Grambling State Tigers at the new Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta pits two teams that have been at the top of the HBCU food chain all year long. The Aggies are No. 1 in the BCSP ranking while the G-Men are No. 2.
Grambling, who was voted and declared last year’s national champion after a 10-9 win over MEAC champ North Carolina Central in Celebration Bowl II, began this season as the No. 1-ranked team in the BCSP Top Ten but fell out of that position after a early loss at FBS and American Athletic Conference member Tulane. North Carolina Central, second in the preseason ranking, lost its season opener on the road at FBS and ACC member Duke.
That paved the way for A&T, who began the season as the third-ranked team and opened with a 45-3 road win over Gardner-Webb that vaulted the Aggies to the top spot. It was a perch they never relinquished as they ran off an unprecedented 11 straight wins to take the outright MEAC title. En route to winning that crown the Aggies subdued rival NCCU, who had stymied the Aggies quest for the outright title in the final game in each of the past three seasons.
Grambling meanwhile was putting together an 11-game win streak of its own, rolling through the SWAC, defeating Southern in the regular season finale to take the West Division title before knocking off East Division champ Alcorn State for the second time this season and second consecutive year in the conference’s championship game.
WHAT KIND OF GAME TO EXPECT
In Celebration Bowl I, N. C. A&T and Alcorn State put on a shootout for the ages with the Aggies prevailing 41-34. A&T’s Tarik Cohen, now with the NFL’s Chicago Bears, ran for 295 yards and TDs of 74, 83 and 73 yards. There were 74- and 84-yard punt returns for touchdowns and over 800 yards of total offense.
Last year in Celebration Bowl II, Grambling and NCCU scored just one touchdown each and the game was decided on a blocked PAT attempt.
So the big question for this year’s game is will it be a shootout like the 2015 affair or the kind of grind-it-out slugfest that characterized last year’s game?
Both teams average over 30 points per game and hold the opposition below 20. They have dynamic rushers in powerful Marquell Cartwright (5-10, 201) of A&T and cat quick Martez Carter (5-9, 205) of Grambling. And both have their respective league’s best defenses against the run.
A&T junior Lamar Raynard and Grambling senior Devante Kincade also led their leagues in passing yards with both throwing for over 2,600 yards. Raynard had 26 TDs and five interceptions while Kincade had 21 and 3.
But remember, the game is won up front. Grambling led the SWAC with 43 sacks while A&T led the MEAC with 35. But the Aggies gave up just 10 sacks while the G-Men surrendered 29. Keep your eye on that.