Well here we are again. Back in old familiar Atlanta for the annual Christmas trip on the road to another HBCU National Championship. The Celebration Bowl has become almost the regular scheduled designated end to North Carolina A&T’s football season. It really is mind boggling when you stop and take time to appreciate the fact the Aggies are going for their fourth HBCU national crown in five years and are seeking an unprecedented third such moniker in a row.
By no means did A&T take an easy path this year back to Mercedes Benz Stadium. The Aggies had a couple of disappointing mid season conference losses along the way, a bitter 34-31 overtime loss at FAMU in game marred with fisticuffs and a lot of bad blood and then just three weeks later an inexplicable 22-16 putrid road performance at Morgan State. Those losses threw A&T’s destiny into some doubt and had many Aggie fans quite anxious that their team’s streak of conference crowns might just come to an end.
However, the Aggies, like the true champions that they are, buckled down and put both of those setbacks far in the rear view mirror as they faced their biggest adversary in the final weeks of the race in Bethune-Cookman. A&T not only showed up but showed out in blasting the Wildcats 44-17 in what was their best overall offensive showing of the season.
The season finale against N.C. Central was really anticlimactic as A&T put on a devastating display on both sides of the ball setting school records for the widest margin of victory ever between the two archrivals and fewest total yards allowed ever by an Aggie defense (9 yards) in annihilating the outmanned Eagles 54-0 to clinch it’s third straight MEAC title, and its fourth in the last five years.
If the trip down to Georgia is becoming old hat so is the opponent that A&T will face in Alcorn State, kingpin of the SWAC. This will mark the third time that the Aggies will have faced the Braves in the Celebration Bowl and while some would have preferred a different opponent the fact of the matter is that these two programs have been the dominant forces in Black College Football over the last half dozen years or so.
These teams are of contrasting styles yet very similar in many aspects. Alcorn is a free wheeling, wide open offensive team that chooses finesse and speed with a bend but don’t break defensive personality – always looking for that big swing play.
A&T’s philosophy on the other hand is likened to a P&J sandwich by keeping things as simple as possible but just doing it better than everyone else. Run the football, stop the run, and avoid turnovers. No flash, no glitz. Just consistency and physicality at the point of attack.
As different as they may be in styles have these thing s in common. Both squads are extremely well coached, fundamentally sound, and have playmakers who amke big plays when they have to.
Alcorn will be looking to get the monkey off their back and uphold the honor the SWAC after losing two very close title games to the Aggies in the final minutes while A&T will be playing for the chance to add it’s name beside those of those elite standard bearers of years past in the book of HBCU football dynasties.
This will be a game between two programs that fans have now become accustomed to seeing in the post season. Both coaches know each other pretty well now meeting so many times in the biggest game of the year. There won’t be many new surprises to be sprung on Saturday by either side.
Alcorn comes in riding on the arm and legs of SWAC Player of the Year quarterback Felix Harper (5-11, 180, 179-295, 2613 yds, 30 touchdowns), receivers Chris Blair and LeCharles Pringle both with over 700 yards in receptions, and the running back tandem of star freshman Nico Duffey (787 yds.) and senior De’Shawn Waller (458 yds.)
As a group they average a little over 32 points and 402 yards a per game.
Defensively the Braves build everything around their endless blitz packages led by senior All-American Solomon Muhammad (6-1,235) who is a one man wrecking crew. And while Alcorn might been nearly as dominating up front as they were a year ago they still are one of the better defenses around finishing first in the SWAC in total defense allowing 336 yards per game.
The Aggies boast one of the stingiest defenses in the country and their FCS best of 270 yards per game will be severely tested by an explosive Alcorn attack. After four weeks rest, A&T will welcome back three key starters in the defensive line who missed the final third of the season but will miss senior Antoine Wilder (broken ankle).
Contrary to popular belief, it will be the defenses and the special teams that determine the final outcome of this game as both teams can score in a blink of an a eye. Therein may lie the advantage to an A&T team that is built around defense and the kicking game first and has excelled in both categories throughout the season.
If the A&T defense can slow the Alcorn ground game, find enough discipline to contain Harper on the edges, and speed the Alcorn offense up with pressure and not give up big plays on third down then A&T’s physical grinding nature should win a war of attrition. By contrast on offense A&T will need to take care of the football, show patience in establishing the running game, and play with the same efficiency and fire they ended the regular season with then everything else will take of itself.
This will be one good exciting football game no matter which way it goes.
N.C. A&T – 31
Alcorn – 27