Grambling vs. N.C. A&T is Celebration Bowl many wanted

(STATS) – North Carolina A&T coach Rod Broadway points out to his players how the windshield in a car dwarfs the size of the rear-view mirror.

“Why is that?” Broadway said. “Because they don’t want you looking back too much because you might run into something.”

The Aggies, the 11-0 champs of the MEAC, will have had four weeks to bask in the best regular season in program history when they take on SWAC champ Grambling State (11-1) in the third annual Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl on Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta (noon ET, ABC).

Yet, Broadway says the Aggies can only look forward. They have a shot at history – a perfect season that would be capped with winning the black college national championship.

The matchup so many wanted all season – N.C. A&T ended the regular season ranked seventh in the FCS and Grambling was 13th, losing only to Tulane – will bring the curtain down on the 125th year of football between the nation’s historically black colleges and universities.

The heritage runs deep with these teams. N.C. A&T captured the inaugural Celebration Bowl two years ago, 41-34 over Alcorn State, and Grambling won last year’s game, 10-9 over North Carolina Central. Broadway is a former head coach at Grambling State, having led the Tigers to the 2008 black college national championship, and Grambling State coach Broderick Fobbs’ father Lee was A&T’s head coach from 2006-08.

“You’re talking about two storied programs that understand the importance of putting football in its rightful place and giving it what it needs in order to be successful,” Fobbs said.

All of that time the Aggies have had to anticipate the matchup is part of Grambling’s advantage. The Aggies haven’t played since they ended their regular season on Nov. 18. Since then, Grambling has played twice, beating Southern in the Bayou Classic on Nov. 25 and Alcorn State in the final SWAC Championship Game on Dec. 2.

“I would rather have maybe a week in between like we have,” Fobbs said, “because we’re coaching 18- to 23-year-olds and it’s very difficult to keep them focused.”

“I guess it all depends on the result, which is most important,” Broadway said, drawing laughter at a recent news conference.

As they meet for the first time since 1997, Grambling holds a 4-3 edge in the all-time series. They overflow with talent, with N.C. A&T placing 12 players on the All-MEAC first team and Grambling nine on the All-SWAC first team.

Grambling is led by senior quarterback DeVante Kincade, who in two seasons since transferring in has thrown for 52 touchdown passes and only seven interceptions while winning consecutive SWAC offensive player of the year awards. Running back Martez Carter is the go-to player on runs or catching passes out of the backfield.

While the Tigers’ defense isn’t quite as stout as last year’s senior-led team that won the Celebration Bowl, senior linebacker De’Arius Christmas (79 tackles, 14½ tackles for loss) is the SWAC’s defensive player of the year.

N.C. A&T’s offense features a big three of quarterback Lamar Raynard (2,707 passing yards, 26 TD passes), running back Marquell Cartwright (1,080 yards, 13 TDs) and wide receiver Elijah Bell (858 receiving yards, 11 TDs) as well as NFL prospect Brandon Parker at left tackle.

The Aggies beat their FBS opponent, Charlotte, and their defense hasn’t allowed more than 20 points to a non-FBS opponent, ranking third in the FCS in points allowed per game (12.3) and fourth in yards allowed (251.4). It’s a unit led by senior linebacker Jeremy Taylor, their leading tackler (65). He and cornerback Franklin “Mac” McCain have split 10 interceptions, combining for 407 return yards and four touchdowns.

“It’s a great opportunity to get in front of the world to show what we do,” Broadway said, “and how well we do what we do.”