After a long season, we’re just about right back where we started. Alcorn State, champion of the Southwestern Athletic Conference and North Carolina A&T, champion of the Mid Eastern Athletic Conference, entered the 2015 football season ranked first and third respectively in the Black College Sports Page’s preseason Top Ten. Neither was ranked below sixth during the regular season and they’ll enter the last black college game of the year, Saturday’s first annual Celebration Bowl in Atlanta (12 noon) pitting them as champions of the two conferences, in just about the same position where they began. The winner has a great shot at being named the final 2015 BCSP No. 1 team.
Head Coach Jay Hopson’s 9-3 Alcorn State squad had a somewhat bumpy road finding its way back to the No. 1 spot. After a season-opening 69-6 thumping by ACC member Georgia Tech that knocked them out of the top spot, the Braves handily won three straight and returned to No. 1 before a missed extra point resulted in a 35-34 homecoming loss to Grambling State in mid-October. Two weeks later, after the Braves thumped SWAC contender Southern 48-7, they ran into a hot Prairie View A&M team and fell 40-34 and into sixth in the Top Ten. But they closed the season with four straight wins including a dominating 49-21 win in a rematch with then No. 1 Grambling at the SWAC Championship Game in Houston two weeks ago.
North Carolina A&T
Rod Broadway’s Aggies of A&T also had a stint at No. 1. After losing 53-14 to ACC member North Carolina in the second week of the season, the Aggies ran off eight straight wins including a 24-14 decision at home over Bethune-Cookman on the same October weekend Alcorn State lost to Grambling. That win propelled the Aggies to the top spot. They stayed at No. 1 until a season ending 21-16 loss to rival North Carolina Central knocked them from that perch and into the No. 3 spot and into a tie with NCCU and Bethune-Cookman for the MEAC title. They earned the Celebration Bowl berth by virtue of the league’s tie-breaking procedure.
Both teams feature potent running attacks led by standout players but are anemic throwing the ball. Alcorn averages over 309 rushing yards per game, tops in the SWAC and third in FCS football. The Braves are led by senior running back Darryan Ragsdale and sophomore quarterback Lenorris Footman. Ragsdale has rushed for 1,144 yards and averages 95.3 yards per game and a whopping 8.2 yards per carry. Footman, who replaced injured starter and 2014 SWAC Offensive Player of the Year, senior John Gibbs Jr. after six games, has rushed for 961 yards, averages 96.1 yards per game and a gaudy 7.6 yards per carry.
Footman ran for 11 TDs while Ragsdale had eight. The A&T offense is led by junior running back Tarik Cohen who ran for a league-best 1,248 yards and 12 TDs. As a passer, Footman has only completed 44.8% of his throws (60 of 134), but he has amassed 962 yards with 12 TDs and only three interceptions. The Braves are next-to-last in the SWAC in passing yards per game.
A&T senior Kwashaun Quick, who has battled injuries all season, is expected to be the starter for the Aggies. Quick, like Footman, a better runner than passer, has rushed for 308 yards in nine games and has passed for 512 yards (57 of 104, 54.8%) with four TDs and four picks. Like Alcorn State, the Aggies were next-to-last in passing yards in the MEAC.
The strategy for both teams will be to stop the run and force the other team to beat you through the air. In other words, the team that throws the ball best is likely to come out the winner. Defensively, A&T tops the MEAC and is second in the FCS in rushing defense giving up just 84.5 yards per game. Alcorn State’s run defense is no slouch but gives up 157 yards per game, third in the SWAC.
The Aggies defense is led by linebacker Angelo Keyes who tops the team in tackles (50) and sacks (4.5). Watch out for Alcorn defensive back Warren Gatewood , a two-time all-SWAC performer, who leads the teams with four interceptions. If A&T has an edge it may be in the kicking game. The Aggies feature dynamic return men in Tony McRae (kickoffs) and Khris Gardin (punts) who both have two returns for touchdowns. McRae, who also plays cornerback, leads the Aggies with three interceptions Marquis Warford, who is a triple threat as a receiver, runner and return man, is a wild card for the Braves.
The Bowl Game
The Celebration Bowl is meant to be just that – a celebration. It is to celebrate the inauguration of what the sponsors and organizers call a ‘first-class bowl experience’ pitting championship teams from both NCAA Div. I black college conference. It’s also to celebrate the legacy, values and traditions of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Whether Saturday’s game can live up to the hype, on or off the field, is the big question.
The conferences are getting $1 million each from ESPN, the owner of the game. Each participating school could walk away with a $500,000 payday, likely its largest single payout for an athletic event.
Additionally, SportsCenter on the Road will originate from the bowl game. Jay Harris, Lisa Kerney and Cari Champion will anchor the program along with analyst Jerome Bettis. While the game signals the end of the 2015 football season, the sponsors, hosts and conferences hope it’s the beginning of something special.