The Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl has become a tradition to start off the bowl season, matching up the champions of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) and the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC). This season, the matchup of historically black colleges features the North Carolina A&T Aggies (MEAC) and the Grambling State Tigers (SWAC). This is a noon kickoff on ABC at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Here is a preview of what to expect between in what has become known as the HBCU National Championship.
Matchup of HBCU Titans
This game marks the third Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl, and it pits the two previous winners against each other. NC A&T won the inaugural game against Alcorn State 41-34, and Grambling nipped NC Central 10-9 last season. These two teams have not lost to an FCS opponent, with their only combined blemish being Grambling’s loss to FBS Tulane in September. This is a real showpiece event for HBCU football, and these two teams represent everything great about it. There are multiple possible NFL prospects on both teams, passionate fans, and great marching bands. If you only watch one FCS game all season, make it this one.
When the Aggies Have the Ball:
Lamar Raynard is the key to everything the Aggies do offensively. He threw for over 2,000 yards with a 26-5 TD-INT ratio this season. The undefeated Aggies gave up less than one sack per game. They will need to continue that kind of protection against Grambling’s ferocious pass rush, which ranks first in the FCS with 47 sacks. Luckily for the Aggies, they feature NFL prospect Brandon Parker at left tackle.
The Grambling defense is ballhawking, leading the FCS with a plus-21 turnover margin, and will look to force Raynard into bad throws. The Tigers could look to the game plan that Bethune-Cookman used in their October 21 game, where the Aggies narrowly escaped with a 24-20 victory. While Raynard threw for three touchdowns in that game, Bethune-Cookman’s ability to get pressure with four down linemen allowed for the secondary to keep the receivers covered. Raynard finished 11-for-25 in what was the closest game the Aggies played all season.
Keep in mind the difference in talent between Grambling’s defensive line and that of Bethune-Cookman. The biggest matchup on the outside will be between NC A&T’s Elijah Bell and Grambling’s senior leader De’Aumante Johnson. Look for the Aggies to try to exploit the height difference: Bell is a sturdy 6’1” while Johnson is an impish 5’9”.
When the Tigers Have the Ball:
The NC A&T defense is really, really strong. They have yet to allow more than 20 points to an FCS team, but Grambling will present their biggest challenge yet. Devante Kincade is an Ole Miss transfer who has won back-to-back SWAC Offensive Player of the Year Awards at Quarterback. His top receiver is Quintin Guice, a 6’1” sophomore who is being looked at as a fringe NFL prospect.
Jeremy Taylor is the Aggies’ best defensive player, as the outside linebacker leads the team in both tackles (65) and interceptions (5). Look for a key matchup to be between him and the Tigers’ do-everything tailback Martez Carter, who is second on the team in receiving. If Carter is shut down, as he was by Northwestern State early in the year, then the Tigers could struggle to put up points.
In their last performance, against Alcorn State in the SWAC Championship, the Tigers pounded away, averaging nearly seven yards per play in a tremendously balanced attack. If they come Saturday with a similar balance (41 rushes, 31 passes) and effectiveness, it could be a long day for the Aggie defense.
Grambling has been able to handle adversity this season, falling behind with less than five minutes left to Southern, but NC A&T has not. If Grambling gets a lead, will the Aggies be able to respond? I say yes. Look for Raynard and the Aggie offense to wear the Tigers down over the course of what should be a long, intense game. Grambling has relied on pressure to force turnovers, but the Aggie offensive line should be too stout for that. Give me North Carolina A&T 35, Grambling 27 in what should be another crowning achievement for HBCU football.