North Carolina A&T left no doubt as to who was the No. 1 team in 2017 black college football as the Aggies defeated Grambling State in Saturday’s Celebration Bowl in Atlanta to finish with a perfect 12-0 record this season.
The game between the 11-0 BCSP No. 1 Aggies, champions of the Mid Eastern Athletic Conference and ranked 7th nationally in the AFCA FCS Coaches Poll, and the 11-1 No. 2 Tigers, champs of the Southwestern Athletic Conference and ranked 11th in the Coaches Poll, was for all the marbles and the Aggies escaped with a hard-fought 21-14 win.
Head coach Rod Broadway and the Aggies defeated all comers, running through the MEAC at 8-0 and handling all four non-conference opponents, including a 35-31 win over Charlotte of the FBS, to become only the second team in the 24-year history of the Black College Sports Page to finish in the final No. 1 spot with an unblemished record. The first was the 2000 Tuskegee team under head coach Rick Comegy that also finished 12-0.
The biggest question for Broadway and the Aggies coming into the season was whether they could get by rival and nemesis North Carolina Central who had handed the Aggies three straight season-ending losses that not only denied A&T outright titles over that span but delivered titles to the Eagles. Those wins for NCCU gave head coach Jerry Mack and the Eagles shares of the 2015 and 2016 titles with A&T and gave the Eagles the outright 2016 title.
A&T entered the NCCU game this season at 10-0 and proceeded to get the proverbial monkey off its back with a decisive 24-10 win that earned it this year’s outright MEAC crown.
En route to the title, junior quarterback Lamar Raynard earned the MEAC offensive player of the year award and set A&T passing records (2,932 passing yards, 27 TDs, 7 ints.), as did his chief target, sophomore wideout Elijah Bell (64 receptions, 953 yds., 11 TDs). Junior running back Marquell Cartwright ran for over 1,000 yards (1,130 yds., 14 TDs), left tackle Brandon Parker again earned all-American status and the Aggie defense again finished among the best in the nation (4th in total defense in the FCS).
A&T is the undisputed, undefeated BCSP national champion and No. 1 team in the final BCSP Top Ten.
Head coach Broderick Fobbs and senior quarterback Devaante Kincade led Grambling to its second straight SWAC title but could not duplicate last year’s win in the Celebration Bowl that earned the Tigers the 2016 HBCU national championship. The G-Men handled everyone on its schedule except FBS member Tulane early in the season and N. C. A&T to close it out. Kincade was the SWAC’s top offensive player and linebacker DeArius Christmas took home the defensive award.
Dynamic senior running back Trenton Cannon and sophomore quarterback Cordelral Cook propelled Virginia State to a perfect 10-0 regular season including winning the North Division title at 7-0 and taking the CIAA crown in a 42-19 championship game victory over South Division champ Fayetteville State. But second-year head man Reggie Barlow’s troops (10-1) could not extend that success into the Div. II playoffs as they fell hard to West Georgia, 35-9 in the first round.
Cannon led all black college rushers with 1,638 yards, 250 yards better than his nearest competitor, and 17 TDs. Outside of Grambling and A&T, VSU had the next best season and finished third in the final BCSP ranking.
Just a notch below the Trojans at No. 4 are the Bulldogs of Bowie State (9-2). Head coach Damon Wilson rode the arm of prolific QB Amir Hall, the only black college passer to top 3,000 yards this season, and the legs of RB Robert Chesson to finish behind VSU in the CIAA North.
BSU’s only regular season loss was to VSU despite Hall’s five TD passes. The Bulldogs staged a dramatic comeback but fell short in the first round of the Div. II playoffs to Delta State.
Bethune-Cookman is one of the few teams that gave A&T a real challenge, leading the Aggies 20-14 in the fourth quarter before falling 24-20. They knocked off NC Central late in the season to keep the Eagles out of the title picture for the first time in four years. A second-place MEAC tie with Howard gets the ‘Cats the No. 5 spot.
Howard, picked to finish eighth in the preseason, surprised everyone with its 7-4 overall mark and 6-2 second-place MEAC finish. Kudos go to first year head coach Mike London and his dynamic freshman QB Caylin Newton who were the talk of HBCU football after its opening game victory at UNLV and remained that way throughout an unexpected turnaround season.
The Bison hold down the No. 6 spot. Four-time SWAC East Division champ Alcorn State is 7th in the final ranking. The Braves (7-4) handled everyone in the SWAC except Grambling. losing twice to the G-Men.
Southern (7-3) also was a Grambling victim falling to the G-Men for the third straight year in their season-ending Bayou Classic to finish second in the SWAC West. The Jaguars are 8th.
The ride of three straight MEAC titles ended for North Carolina Central (7-4) and head coach Jerry Mack, who announced after the season that he was departing for the offensive coordinator’s job at Rice. The Eagles stayed in it until a late-season, last-second loss to B-CU on a Hail Mary pass. SIAC champion Tuskegee rounds out the final Top Ten. The Golden Tigers (9-2) won the SIAC West and got by East champion Fort Valley State for the league crown. A 61-0 regular season loss likely prevented Willie Slater’s troops from reaching the Div. II playoffs for the fourth straight season.