The Celebration Bowl, a meeting of the MEAC and SWAC champions in Atlanta on the first weekend of the bowl season, is still in its infancy, but the on-field and off-field success of the first year has excitement buzzing for year two. Last year’s participants, North Carolina A&T and Alcorn State, each lost in the conference championship to bitter rivals as their absence opens the door for NC Central and Grambling State.
Date: Saturday, Dec. 17
Time: Noon ET
Location: Georgia Dome — Atlanta, Ga.
Live streams: WatchESPN / WatchESPN apps
Grambling State: It took a second half surge from the G-Men to knock off Alcorn State and claim the program’s first SWAC title since 2011. A former running back under Hall of Fame coach Eddie Robinson, Broderick Fobbs has improved his win total in each of his three seasons as head coach and has arguably his best team yet, going 11-1 with the only loss coming to Arizona in Tucson. If Grambling State can follow reclaiming the SWAC title with a series-tying win against the MEAC, it will be a fitting end to a dream season for the Tigers.
NC Central: Jerry Mack, also in his third season, was one of the youngest coaches in all of Division I at the time of his hiring, only slightly older than Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck. Last year, the Eagles finished in a three-way tie for the MEAC title with North Carolina A&T and Bethune-Cookman but missed out on the Celebration Bowl bid because of the tiebreaker, despite beating the in-state rival Aggies in the regular season finale. This year there’s no debate, as a third straight victory in that rivalry left NC Central as the only undefeated team in the conference. Now it’s time for Mack, the 2016 MEAC Coach of the Year, to lead the Eagles to Celebration Bowl glory.
Players to watch
Devante Kincade, Grambling State QB: Kincade ranks third in the FCS and first in the SWAC in passing efficiency (171.6) and was first in the conference in completion percentage (65.2), passing yards per game (263.3) and total offensive yards per game (290.4). He was named SWAC Offensive Player of the Year and finished the regular season with a ridiculous 28-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Malcolm Bell, NC Central QB: Bell was the first player this season to run for 100 yards against North Carolina A&T, totaling 131 rushing yards in the regular season finale. The redshirt senior has already etched himself in the school record books, becoming the first Eagle in school history to throw for 6,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in his career. A slow-starting offense won’t keep NC Central, the double-digit underdogs, in this game so it will be key for Bell to get the offense rolling early in the Georgia Dome.
Grambling State is the heavy favorite here, making the pick easy. Last year’s thriller (NC A&T over Alcorn State 41-34) has me believing that each of these games will be close until proven otherwise. When the stage is this big and new, the talent gap has a tendency to shrink a little. These teams have been playing winning football all year, and I think only a one-sided turnover margin could make this a blowout. Pick: Eagles +15.5