MikeCheck: Celebration Bowl-bound Aggies don’t need FCS playoffs to validate one of NCAA football's most remarkable runs
MEMPHIS – Considering the football résumé, it’s only natural to wonder.
When you’ve dominated Black College football the past half-decade like North Carolina A&T has, it’s human nature to contemplate how far such a talented and special team might go in the national college football playoffs against top mainstream FCS competition.
Being the elite program in HBCU football ranks is one thing. Having a shot to emerge as the best FCS squad in the nation overall is quite another. It’s a juxtaposition N.C. A&T coach Sam Washington juggles as the Aggies keep stacking Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championships and Black College titles.
For the third time in four years, N.C. A&T (9-2) is headed back to the ESPN-run Celebration Bowl in Atlanta and will face Southwestern Athletic Conference champion Alcorn State (9-3) on Dec. 15 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. At stake in the matchup between the consensus top two teams in the HBCU coaches and media polls are a solid payday and the title of Black College national champions.
That’s certainly a gratifying distinction.
But is it completely satisfying?
On the same weekend the HBCU title will be decided in Atlanta, the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision – commonly referred to as the FCS – will wrap up the semifinal round of its 24-team national playoffs. The FCS national championship game is Jan. 5 in Texas.
“At this point, it’s our bowl game,” Washington said of the Aggies’ path to the Celebration Bowl as the MEAC’s qualifier. “Had we gone to the playoffs, I was looking forward to seeing how good we possibly could play, seeing exactly where we are when you think about the North Dakota States, the James Madisons, the powerhouses of FCS. That would have been a challenge as well. But this bowl game is so attractive, it’s almost impossible to turn down.”
The Aggies’ fate was basically out of their hands. Had Florida A&M beaten rival Bethune-Cookman two weeks ago in the Florida Classic, the Rattlers would have won the MEAC outright and snagged the spot in the Celebration Bowl. In that case, N.C. A&T would likely have received an at-large bid to the FCS playoffs by virtue of a strong overall record.
Instead, FAMU lost to B-CU on the final weekend, which lifted N.C. A&T to its fourth MEAC title in five seasons. The MEAC and SWAC are the nation’s lone two conferences competing at the FCS level. When it comes to the most influential programs in that group, the postseason preference is for the national payoffs rather than the national playoffs.
In addition to the exclusive national spotlight it offers, the Celebration Bowl guarantees $1 million each to the MEAC and SWAC. According to school officials, N.C. A&T and Alcorn State each get $500,000 for the game and the remaining payout is split among conference schools. Both teams could earn more based on ticket-sale incentives.
Had we gone to the playoffs, I was looking forward to seeing how good we possibly could play, seeing exactly where we are... But this bowl game is so attractive, it’s almost impossible to turn down.Sam Washington
HBCU administrators insist the exposure and earning potential from sending their top teams to the FCS playoffs pale in comparison to the one-game-and-done package of the Celebration Bowl, which is broadcast on ABC and officially kicks off the bowl season. Meanwhile, the Jan. 5 FCS title game is on ESPN2 at the end of a five-week tournament.
The MEAC does not hold a conference championship game, which theoretically opens the door for its second-place finisher to land a FCS at-large bid to the playoffs that start Thanksgiving weekend. The SWAC, however, not only generally holds a title game the first week of December, but its marquee regular-season matchup – the Grambling-Southern Bayou Classic – is locked in with broadcast partner NBC at the Superdome the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
So the combination of lucrative payouts, NFL stadium venues and national television exposure for three games in the span of a month – Bayou Classic, SWAC title game and Celebration Bowl – makes bypassing the FCS playoffs a worthwhile alternative for the top HBCU teams.
They’ve generally struggled to advance in the NCAA playoffs, but there have been notable exceptions.
This season is the 40th anniversary of FAMU’s team that beat Massachusetts for the 1978 national FCS title in what was then called the NCAA Division I-AA playoffs. In 1994, Steve McNair made the cover of Sports Illustrated and put the final touches – and touchdowns – on his Heiman Trophy bid with a heroic performance in a playoff loss to Youngstown State. Five years later, FAMU reached the semifinals with a record-shattering passing offense.
The Aggies last made the playoffs three years ago with a dynamic team that featured tailback Tarik Cohen, now a rising star with the NFL’s Chicago Bears. If any HBCU team could have delivered a FCS playoff championship breakthrough, these senior-laden Aggies would have had as good a shot as any.
Lamar Raynard #7 drops back to pass during the bowl game between the North Carolina A&T Aggies and the Grambling State Tigers on December 16, 2017 at Mercedes- Benz Stadium in Atlanta, GA. Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images.
They placed seven players on the All-Conference first team, including two-time 1,000-yard rusher Marquell Cartwright, MEAC offensive lineman of the year Micah Shaw and league sack leader Darryl Johnson. All three are projected NFL draft picks.
Along with quarterback Lamar Raynard, they form the core of a team that has gone 21-2 the past two years, including the program’s first 12-0 unbeaten mark in school history. Over the past five seasons, the Aggies have won four MEAC titles, upset three FBS-level teams on the road and won two HBCU national championships. This season, N.C. A&T opened by beating perennial FCS postseason power Jacksonville State and finished the regular season ranked No. 11 in the FCS national poll.
“When I got the job, I wasn’t given keys to a (beat-up) Volkswagen,” said Washington, named MEAC coach of the year in his first season after being promoted to the head job. “I was given keys to a very fine football team. But it’s the (fifth-year) senior class we should focus on. They won a ’14 championship, ’15 championship, ’16 go to playoffs, ’17 championship. And now in ’18, we have a chance to go to another championship. I’m just proud to be a part of that.”
There’s not much more these Aggies need to prove. There’s no doubt about it. Another Celebration Bowl coronation would certainly cap one of the most remarkable runs by any team on any level.
MikeCheck HBCU Postseason Power Poll
1. Alcorn State (8-3):
The Braves relied on balance to hold off Southern for a 37-28 win in Saturday’s SWAC championship game. SWAC Player of the Year Noah Johnson snagged title game Offensive MVP honors, but it was De’Shawn Waller’s 177 rushing yards and eight sacks from one of FCS football’s most dominant defenses that closed the show and sent Alcorn State to Atlanta to play for an HBCU national title.
Last week’s ranking: 1
Up next: Dec. 15 Air Force Reserves Celebration Bowl vs North Carolina A&T
2. North Carolina A&T (9-2):
The Aggies will carry a four-game winning streak, the leadership of prolific quarterback Lamar Raynard and a rushing attack that averages nearly 200 yards a game into their Dec. 15 Celebration Bowl showdown against Alcorn State. It’s a matchup of the inaugural Celebration Bowl in 2015, which the Aggies won 41-34 on a 295-yard performance from current NFL tailback Tarik Cohen.
Last week’s ranking: 2
Up next: Dec. 15 Air Force Reserves Celebration Bowl vs Alcorn State
3. Southern (7-3):
Coach Dawson Odums’ Jaguars lost the SWAC championship game to Alcorn State but they clearly have gained the program’s next big star in quarterback Ladarius Skelton, who nearly single-handedly kept Southern in the game with four touchdowns. Skelton, who took over midseason as the starter, accounted for seven TDs in the season’s final two games with electrifying passes and scrambles.
Last week’s ranking: 3
Up next: Season complete
4. Bethune-Cookman (7-5):
The Wildcats placed seven players on the MEAC All-Conference first, second or third teams, including five standouts who will be returning next season for one of the league’s most dynamic squads. Anchoring B-CU’s honorees is redshirt junior defensive lineman Marques Ford, who finished second in the MEAC with 8.5 sacks, 10.5 tackles for losses and 42 total tackles last season.
Last week’s ranking: 4
Up next: Season complete
5. Bowie State (10-3):
The accolades keep stacking for senior QB Amir Hall, named to the NCAA Division II All Region 2 team this week. Hall led the nation in passing, set conference career passing records for yards and TDs and is again a finalist for Division II National Player of the Year, Black College Football player of the year (Deacon Jones Trophy) and Offensive Player of the Year (Doug Williams Trophy).
Last week’s ranking: 5
Up next: Season completeThe contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.