The final act of the 2016 black college football season is upon us this weekend as the Celebration Bowl is all we have left until next fall.
Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champ North Carolina Central and Southwestern Athletic champ Grambling State will face off in the Georgia Dome with an HBCU national championship at stake.
Grambling is the blue blood of this matchup. If you know anything about football history, you know the names. Eddie Robinson. Doug Williams. Charlie Joiner. The list goes on. Two weeks ago the program picked up its 25th SWAC title, which speaks to their sustained dominance.
North Carolina Central (9-2) also has a storied past as well, but its story is not as well known. The Durham, NC school has had solid but sporadic success on the gridiorn since it began playing football back in the 1920's, winning eight Central Intercollegiate Athletic Assocation championships and five MEAC Championships.
But in 2013, both programs were in trouble. Grambling, once "the icon" of black college sports excellence had become a living, breathing symbol for black college sports' decline as its exercise facilities and coaching changes led to a player boycott ahead of a game at Jackson State. NCCU lost its head coach, former Eddie Robinson Award winner Henry Frazier, prior to the season after his second arrest on domestic related issues.
But out of the ashes, both teams have ascended to the top of their respective conferences, earned national rankings and the right to showcase their programs and universities to millions of people as they help kick off the bowl season.
Both teams rely heavily on their quarterbacks. NCCU's Malcolm Bell has seen the highs and the lows during his time in Durham, experiencing three different coaches in his first three years. He's adjusted well, using his arm and his legs to lead the team to a share of the conference title in each of the last two seasons, and leading the charge as it took its first outright MEAC title since 1973 with a commanding 42-21 win over North Carolina A&T last month.
A year ago DeVante Kincade was the third string quarterback at Ole Miss. Today, the former Dallas prep legend is the SWAC Offensive Player of The Year after throwing for 30 touchdowns in the regular season and leading his team to a 10-1 record. A dangerous passer and a capable runner, Kincade has been one of the best signal callers in the FCS this season.
Both teams score north of 30 points per game, with Grambling topping out at a gawdy 42.5 points per game. Obviously, the key here will be which defense can slow down the other enough to keep themselves off the field to stay fresh.
Grambling (36) and NCCU (30) both get their fair share of sacks per game, while NCCU quarterbacks have been sacked less (20 times to Grambling's 30) but have also attempted significantly fewer passes (286 attempts to Grambling's 358).
So will this game match the entertainment factor of the first Celebration Bowl, when North Carolina A&T running back Tarik Cohen ran for nearly 300 yards but Alcorn State found a way to stay in the game until it's last drive? If the results of this season are any indication, we just might be in for even more excitement on Saturday.