By ADD SEYMOUR JR.
The first-ever Celebration Bowl in Atlanta today is the final HBCU football game of the season, but probably one of the most important.
The two best teams of the two FCS HBCU football conferences, Alcorn State from the Southwestern Athletic Conference and North Carolina A&T from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, are battling to see who should be on top of the HBCU football world.
The game will be telecast live on ABC at noon eastern time from the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
Alcorn State, at 9-3 and fresh off of winning their second straight SWAC title, is looking to show that a mid-season hiccup where they lost two of three games is less indicative of a team that has the SWAC's top rated offense and defense and avenged one of those losses two weeks ago easily against a strong Grambling squad in the SWAC Championship game.
The Braves have won four straight since those regular season losses to Grambling (which they avenged) and Prairie View have outscored those four opponents 172-54 (21 of those 54 points came against Grambling in a title game that was decided early on).
"This is a team that has had some adversity," said ASU head coach Jay Hopson to the Sun Herald.com. We had injuries, lost five or six starters, and battled back. I think we're a team - in basketball terms - we're getting stronger toward tournament time. I'm seeing a football team that really has gotten stronger as the season wore on."
Quarterback John Gibbs Jr., who has passed for nearly 1,000 yards and rushed for nearly 400 more, has been injured. Lenorris Footman has ably stepped in, passing for 962 yards and 12 touchdowns while rushing for 961 and 11 touchdowns. Footman threw for 202 yards and three TDs and rushed for 101 yards and another touchdown in the SWAC championship game.
"The reality is we've got two outstanding football players at that position," Hopson told The Vicksburg Press. "It just so happens one is 100 percent completely healthy and the other is in that 90 percent range.
Behind whoever starts at quarterback, something Alcorn State head coach Jay Hopson has been coy about, stands Ragsdale Darry who has rushed for 1,141 yards and eight touchdowns.
On defense, the Braves are led by Darien Anderson's 69 tackles and five sacks, Damon Watkins who had 65 stops and five sacks and two others who had six sacks each in Michael Brooks and Stacey Garner.
That all means a tough challenge for a North Carolina A&T team that hasn't played in nearly a month since a loss to rival North Carolina Central in a game that resulted in a three-way tie for the MEAC crown between A&T, Central and Bethune Cookman. Had A&T won, they would have won the title outright. But tiebreakers meant the Aggies earned the Celebration Bowl bid.
Now the Aggies are looking to show the world that not only do they belong in Atlanta today, they are the team to beat.
At 9-2, North Carolina A&T marched through the MEAC schedule, winning seven straight games (eight overall with a win over Elon), mainly on the calling-card strength of one of the nations's nastiest defenses.
The Aggies led the MEAC in defense, but most notably were easily the stingiest squad against the run, something that will be important against a great running offense in Alcorn State. North Carolina A&T only allowed 84 yards rushing a game, 930 yards for the ENTIRE season.
"We must stop the run," A&T head coach Rod Broadway said to The Charlotte Observer. "We can't have a lot of turnovers and we've got to tackle well. The month off gave the players time to heal so I'm anxious to see how we play."
On offense, the leader is running back Tarik Cohen, the two-time defending MEAC Offensive Player of the Year. The junior who became the school's all-time leading rusher earlier this season, rushed for 1,248 yards and 12 touchdowns, averaging 113 yards a game.
Kickoff for the Celebration Bowl is at noon in Atlanta.