Grambling State head football coach Broderick Fobbs and North Carolina Central head coach Jerry Mack will each try to complete remarkable three-year journeys when their teams clash Saturday (12 noon) in Atlanta in the 2nd annual Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl.
Just three years ago, Grambling was coming off back-to-back one-win seasons and embroiled in internal turmoil that had the most storied program in black college football at the bottom of the Southwestern Athletic Conference standings.
That’s when Fobbs took over.
Three years ago at North Carolina Central, the Eagles were stuck in neutral trying to get their program to relevancy after becoming a full member of the Mid Eastern Athletic Conference in 2011. Mack changed that in his first year.
Now, the two coaches bring their championship teams to the Georgia Dome before a national TV audience on ABC looking to put the finishing touches on their programs’ turnarounds by winning a black college national championship. The Celebration Bowl is the year’s first bowl game and fittingly, the final game of the 2016 black college football season.
Fobbs’ 10-1 high-scoring SWAC champion Tigers enter the game on a 10-game winning streak that has them atop all the black college national polls and the consensus No. 1 HBCU team in the land.
Mack and his gritty MEAC champion Eagles are just a step behind at 9-2 and are No. 2 in every poll and ranking after winning nine straight contests. Both teams ran the tables in their respective conferences.
Grambling, who averages 42.5 points and nearly 500 yards per game, beat the nine other SWAC teams handily, by an average score of 47-13. That included two wins over East Division champ Alcorn State who the Tigers took down 27-20 in a tough and hard-fought SWAC championship game two weeks ago.
The only blemish on the G-Men’s record is a 31-21 loss at Pac-12 member Arizona to start the season. Two weeks after beating Grambling, Arizona took No. 4 Washington into overtime before losing 35-28. Washington is one of the four teams in the College Football Playoffs and will face top-ranked Alabama in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl on New Year’s Eve on the same Georgia Dome field.
NCCU had three grind-it-out single digit wins while posting an 8-0 record to take the MEAC title. The Eagles saved perhaps their best effort for the final week of the regular season (Nov. 19) when they knocked off rival North Carolina A&T 42-21 at home in Durham with the league’s outright title and Celebration Bowl berth on the line.
The Eagles lost their first two games to open the season at Duke (49-6) and at Western Michigan (70-21). Western Michigan is 13-0 and ranked as high as 12th in one national poll and will play in the Cotton Bowl vs. No. 8 Wisconsin on Jan. 2. The game matches the explosive and talented Tigers against the crafty and resourceful Eagles.
Grambling has a bevy of playmakers led by quarterback Devante Kincade, the SWAC offensive player of the year, who has thrown for 2,873 yards and 31 TDs with just three interceptions. His backfield includes powerful 240-pounder Jestin Kelly (808 yds., 8 TDs) and elusive 5-8, 175-pound speedster Martez Carter (782 yds., 9 TDs). Chad Williams (87 receptions, 1,297 yds., 121 TDs) and Verlan Hunter (47 rec., 547 yds., 7 TDs) are a pair of 6-2 wide receivers that are match up nightmares.
The veteran and stingy Grambling defense surrenders just 16.7 points per game and is led by linebacker Arkez Cooper (68 tackles), defensive back Guy Stallworth (59 tackles), defensive end Samuel Reese (9 sacks) and tackle Lorin Blain-Winston (34 tackles, 12 for loss, 5 sacks), all fifth-year seniors.
First team all-MEAC quarterback Malcolm Bell (2,191 yds., 16 TDs, 12 ints.) leads the Eagle offense. Running backs Ramone Simpson (630 yds., 5 TDs) and Dorrell McClain (428 yds., 7 TDs) carry the load in the backfield. Bell has a stable of pass catchers led by LaVontis Smith (40 rec., 646 yds., 5 TDs) and Jalen Wilkes (28 rec., 490 yds., 5 TDs).
Seven of NCCU’s 11 starting defenders were named to all-MEAC teams. Defensive end Frederick Henry-Adujua, who leads the team with 7.5 sacks, and safety/kick returner Mike Jones, were named to the first team. Tackles (73) and interceptions (4) leader Reggie Hunter was among five named second team.
THE PATH TO GLORY
The uphill climb for both programs has been steady since Fobbs and Mack took over. In fact, it’s been remarkably similar.
Fobbs rehabilitated the Grambling program and name when his first team in 2014 finished 7-5.
A year after losing to every SWAC team except Mississippi Valley State, Fobbs’ G-Men beat everyone except Alabama State and Southern – the latter at the Bayou Classic that ceded the West Division title and league championship game berth to the Jaguars. Grambling even had a regular season win over eventual league champion Alcorn State.
Last season, Fobbs took the Tigers a step further. posting a 9-3 record overall and winning the SWAC’s West Division title. Grambling went 9-0 in SWAC play including a regular season win over East Division champ Alcorn State before falling to the Braves 49-21 in the SWAC title game.
Mack’s signalled it was a new day at NCCU when his first team finished 7-5 and knocked off rival NC A&T on the final day of the regular season to grab a share of the 2014 MEAC title with four others. All five finished with 6-2 league marks.
His Eagles took the next step in 2015 as they again beat the Aggies in the season finale to cap an 8-3 regular season and earn a share of the title with A&T and Bethune-Cookman at 7-1 in league play. Despite the late season win over the Aggies, A&T was granted the berth in the first Celebration Bowl last year by virtue of the MEAC’s tie-breaking procedure.
The Bowl Game
The Celebration Bowl got off to great start last season as 35,528 fans watched MEAC co-champ North Carolina A&T defeat SWAC champ Alcorn State 41-34 in a game that went down to the final whistle.
The game was full of big plays highlighted by A&T running back Tarik Cohen’s 295 rushing yards including touchdown gallops of 74, 83 and 73 yards. The conferences and sponsors including title sponsor The Air Force Reserve can only hope for an equally exciting affair this time around.
The conferences are again getting $1 million each from ESPN, the owner of the game who will do live cut-ins in the pregame. Each participating school will walk away with a $500,000 payday, likely its largest single payout for an athletic event.