Celebration Bowl: Get ready to rumble!By Semaj Marsh, Peacemaker Sports / December 15, 2017
The college bowl season kicks off this weekend in Atlanta with a nationally-televised showdown between the top two teams in Black college football. Seemingly on a collision course all season, North Carolina A&T, the 11-0 champions of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, and Grambling State, the 11-1 champions of the Southwestern Athletic Conference, will finally get a chance to meet on Saturday, December 16 for the third annual Celebration Bowl.
The game will take place at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in downtown Atlanta and air live on ABC at 12 PM EST. Last season, Grambling held off North Carolina Central for a gritty, 10-9 win, while A&T captured the inaugural Celebration Bowl title in 2015 with an action-packed 41-34 victory over Alcorn State – still regarded by many around here as Tarik Cohen’s coming out party.
Both teams boast talented rosters, accomplished coaching staffs and rabid fan bases. If not for their bowl obligations, but teams would have likely earned high seeds in the 2017 FCS playoffs. A&T finished the regular season ranked No. 6 in the final FCS poll, while Grambling was ranked No. 12. The undefeated Aggies are in the midst of the greatest season in the program’s 93-year history, highlighted by a statement win over FBS opponent Charlotte, some sweet revenge against arch-nemesis NCCU, and their first outright conference title since 2003.
Grambling, the defending HBCU national champs, amassed a similarly impressive resume this year in route to earning its second consecutive SWAC title. The Tigers’ lone loss came against FBS opponent Tulane in week one. As we prepare for this contest, let’s take a closer look at both squads and find out who might have the edge in Saturday’s battle for HBCU football supremacy.
………..A&T’s Offense vs. Grambling’s Defense
Redshirt junior quarterback Lamar Raynard was named MEAC Offensive Player of the Year last week after enjoying one of the greatest regular season campaigns in school history. He led the MEAC with 2707 passing yards and 26 touchdowns, while setting single-season school records in five different passing categories. With him under center, A&T had the MEAC’s top scoring offense, averaging 36.4 point per game. Raynard’s primary target was sophomore wide receiver Elijah Bell, a 6’2, 221 pound sophomore who can make acrobatic catches and manhandle smaller defensive backs in the red zone. His 11 touchdown receptions broke the Aggies’ single-season record. On the ground the Aggies love to pound the ball between the tackles with running back Marquell Cartwright who led the MEAC with 1,080 yards and 13 TDs.
Defensively, Grambling State finished second in the SWAC in points allowed per game (20.4), but showed a real knack for making big plays behind the line of scrimmage. Led by junior defensive lineman La’Allan Clark and junior linebacker De’Arius Christmas, the Tigers led all of FCS with 45 total sacks and finished second in the nation with 97 tackles for loss. The difference in this match-up might be the Aggies’ offensive line, led by All-MEAC senior tackle Brandon Parker. If A&T can dominate the line of scrimmage early, Raynard should have a chance to make plays down field.
Advantage: North Carolina A&T
Grambling’s Offense vs. A&T’s DefenseThe Tigers’ offense is led by dynamic senior quarterback Devante Kincade who also took home conference Player of the Year honors, passing for 2680 yards and 21 touchdowns and just three interceptions. Grambling will likely have a tough time running the ball against the Aggies’ front seven which includes first-team All MEAC defensive end Darryl Johnson, Jr. and senior linebacker Jeremy Taylor. However, A&T has shown a tendency at times to give up big plays through the air, something the Tigers will definitely try to exploit on Saturday. A&T cornerback Franklin “Mac” McCain has a team-high five interceptions this season – three of which he returned for touchdowns – but sometimes can be over-aggressive in man coverage and get beat deep by double moves. If the Tigers offensive line can give Kincade time to operate, he could put up big numbers. Look for Grambling’s big receivers to find success against A&T’s smaller secondary.
Advantage: Grambling State
A&T’s Special Teams vs. Grambling’s Special Teams
Grambling kicker Marc Orozco might have the most reliable foot in Black college football, connecting on 18 of 21 field goal attempts this year with a long of 48.However, A&T’s Khris Gardin might be the most dangerous return specialist in the nation, having previously earned All-America recognition. In the 2015 Celebration Bowl he had a 74-yard punt return for a touchdown. In this year’s season opener against Gardner-Webb, he returned five punts for 150 yards including an 88-yard punt for a touchdown. He currently has the second-most punt return yards in NCAA FCS history (1,576).If the Tigers’ coverage unit allows Gardin to see even a glimpse of daylight it could result in not just a change in field position but on the scoreboard as well.
Advantage: North Carolina A&T
On paper, this Grambling team might be the toughest opponent the Aggies have faced all season. The Tigers are strong in all three phases of the game and have a wealth of talent and speed all throughout their roster. However, there’s just something special about this year’s Aggie team. A&T coach Rod Broadway has kept his troops focused all year and will have had three weeks to rest his players and prepare for this contest. Expect a close game up until the final period, before the Aggies find a way to pull ahead for good and preserve their magical season.
Game Time: Saturday, December 16 at Noon
Watch live on ABC
N.C.A&TSU (MEAC) vs. Grambling (SWAC)