This year's Celebration Bowl was indeed a MUST-SEE event. Going into the game, Jackson State came into the game favored by 14 points (according to USA Today). Jackson State had the best quarterback in Black College Football in Shedeur Sanders, SWAC Offensive Player of the Year, Travis Hunter, and SWAC Defensive Player of the Year, Aubrey Miller. The Tigers were also undefeated coming into this game. In addition to the players on the field, you have the hype, buzz, and resources that come with Coach Deion Sanders and the recipe for a sure win by Jackson State. While the country locked into the allure of Jackson State and the story of Coach Prime leaving for Colorado, North Carolina Central put their heads down and pushed through the consistent disrespect they received over the weekend. What disrespect? Coach Trei Oliver of North Carolina Central outlined the disrespect his team endured throughout Celebration Bowl weekend. First, during the press conference last Thursday, he noted that Jackson State's Athletic Director referred to them as "North Carolina A&T State University." Oliver also revealed that his players were dropped off in the middle of the street on the night of the Celebration Bowl pre-game dinner. Trei Oliver also said that the event's format was altered to accommodate Jackson State, which forced his team to stay in the tunnel for 10 minutes before entering the field. As Coach Oliver put it, "the disrespect was real."
For the second year in a row, either MEAC coaches or players have highlighted ways fans, media, or their opponents (Jackson State) disrespected their team. Last year, the South Carolina State Bulldogs' Decobie Durant, now a cornerback for the Los Angeles Rams, mentioned how the fans in Atlanta said, "so y'all the team Jackson State playin, … they never heard of South Carolina State". He said many people stopped them in the mall and said, "Do y'all play basketball." The former star cornerbacks highlighted how invisible and unrecognizable they felt in comparison to the stars of Jackson State. This year was no different in terms of visibility. Khalil Baker of North Carolina Central said, "All the cameras were on them, all the attention was on them, so we just did our normal routine.". The Eagles, like the Bulldogs, came in as underdogs, but the Eagles were more accomplished than the Bulldogs. Last season the Bulldogs came in with five losses and six wins, while the Eagles only came into this game with two losses. The Eagles can boast one of the most talented teams in all HBCU football, as their starting Quarterback and Defensive Backs were named Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year of the MEAC. Khalil Baker was second in the conference in interceptions with four and is a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award, given to the best defensive player in the FCS. Richard threw 24 touchdowns this season before the Celebration Bowl and ran for 13 touchdowns. The Eagles, under his leadership, scored 40 points or more six times this season. Though they felt invisible going into the game, the Eagles leaned on each other for encouragement. Celebration Bowl Offensive Player of the Game Davius Richard said, "First of all, we're always the underdogs. They always doubt us; it's their opinions. I care about my coach and my teammates, so they can believe what they want to believe, they can say what they want to say, but at the end of the day, I'm going off what these boys say about me and these boys say nothing but great things about me."
Teams from the MEAC thrive in the underdog role. While most of the country is very familiar with the Southwestern Athletic Conference or the SWAC, most know very little about the schools that make up the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference outside of Howard. If the Celebration Bowl continues to grow in popularity, that will change. Nearly every year this game is played, the MEAC wins. Since this game started in 2015, the SWAC has only won it once. That win came in 2016, Grambling 10 - NCCU 9. There are six football-playing schools in the MEAC, and at the beginning of the season, the conference seemed at risk of falling apart. MEAC Commissioner Sonja Stills steadied the ship, and now the MEAC is celebrating its 5th straight win in the Celebration Bowl.
With Coach Deion Sanders leaving for Colorado, most wonder if the national spotlight will still be on Jackson State and the SWAC. Most also wonder if they will be able to recruit as they have in the past two years. TC Taylor will have his "hands full," turning this team into a SWAC-dominant program after the departure of their quarterback and this graduating class. He will have a ton of competition as well as coaches like Willie Simmons, Eddie Robinson, Jr., and Coach Hue Jackson are very notable names in the world of HBCU football. The MEAC, however, has given birth to a star on the national stage in Coach Trei Oliver. Coach Oliver, the MEAC Coach of the Year, is young, extremely experienced, and inspiring, and he has all the young talent he needs to be in the middle of the Black College Football Championship conversation for years to come. Coach Oliver said, "We're a very young football team, and we plan to be here next year and for years to come.". While posing for the team's championship picture, one of the coaches for the North Carolina Central got on one knee, looked at the team, and said, "We Coming!"
Shedeur Sanders threw 349 passing yards and four touchdowns while running for a touchdown. Kevin Coleman, the recruit whose decision to commit to Jackson State last season also sent shockwaves through the NCAA world, caught seven passes for 137 yards and a touchdown. Travis Hunter had a great game offensively. He beat double coverage on the last regulation play and scored a huge touchdown to send the game to overtime. He totaled four catches on the day for 47 yards and two touchdowns. The biggest concern for the Jackson State Tigers was the disappearance of their running game. When we spoke with Dr. Kenyatta Cavil, he mentioned how the Jackson State offensive line had the advantage in the game because of the lack of size on North Carolina Central's defensive line. He said that Wilkerson should have a pretty good day, but Wilkerson had a rather pedestrian day averaging 3.5 years a carry and finishing with 52 yards on the day. Dallas Daniels and Shane Hooks combined for ten catches and 96 yards, as the Tigers could move the ball through the air when needed.
Coach Trei Oliver said games are won, and you can fill the stand with the passing game, but championships are won with the running game. To that end, Coach Trei Oliver said they focused on the running game. The Tigers had one of the best run defenses in HBCU football, but according to their defensive captain linebacker Aubrey Miller, Jr., "guys didn't do their jobs and the guys that was suppose to have their backs, wasn't there... we had a few guys that was supposed to be here that left, and we paid for it." The Eagles ran the ball for 276 yards to Jackson State's 78 total rushing yards. Quarterback Davius Richard ran the ball 22 times for 97 yards and two scores, while Collier ran for 98 yards on 17 carries and one touchdown. Davius also caught a pass for 31 yards. Richard was also quite efficient in the passing game, completing 75% of his passes, 15 passes on 20 attempts getting the ball to five different receivers.