The North Carolina A&T University Aggies (8-3) and the Alcorn State University Braves (9-3) will face off for the third time in the fifth annual Celebration Bowl on Dec. 21 at noon at Mercedes Benz Stadium in downtown Atlanta. The Celebration Bowl will be broadcasted live on ABC. 

Immediately following the game will be a fifth quarter Battle of the Bands show. The fan experience will start at 8 a.m. in the Georgia World Congress Center International Plaza. 

“The Celebration Bowl and the MEAC/SWAC Challenge have created a stage that allows the visibility of players,” said John T. Grant, executive director of the Celebration Bowl. “For the Celebration Bowl, we’ve had four players drafted since our inception to actually go into the NFL…and not only go but to play and start in the league. 

“So this platform is delivering exactly what we had hoped and exactly what is needed in terms of exposing this great talent.”

The Aggies and the Braves are no strangers to this stage. The Aggies boast an impressive 3-1 record in the Celebration Bowl and earned two of those wins over the Braves. The Aggies come into this year as defending champions while the Braves are looking for their first title. 

Last year, the Aggies matched up with the Braves at the Celebration Bowl for the second time. The Aggies squeezed out a 24-22 thriller game that came down to the last minute. 

“Of course we’re very happy to be back…this is what it’s all about,” said NC A&T head coach Sam Washington. “You start your season, this is where you want to be at the end of the season. The championships are decided in December. And the fact that we’re still playing in December we’re very pleased with that. But knowing that it’s going to be a battle.”

NC A&T claimed their trip back to Atlanta after smashing the North Carolina Central Eagles 54-0 on Nov 25. The Aggies finished their season 8-3 overall and 6-2 in the MEAC. The Aggies actually finished second in the conference, behind Florida A&M University, but will represent the MEAC due to Florida A&M’s postseason ineligibility. 

Washington dismissed the spreading narrative that A&T is only competing in the bowl “by default.”

“If we were not supposed to be here we would not be here,” he said. “We’re supposed to be here. We belong here.”

Alcorn State punched their ticket to the bowl after taking down SWAC foe Southern University on Dec. 7 in a 39-24 title game, clinching their second consecutive SWAC title. The Braves finished their season 9-3 overall with a SWAC record of 6-1. 

“When you talk about coming back to the celebration bowl and you talk about all the recognition that the school gets…you talk about that effect and what it means to the players,” Alcorn head coach Fred McNair said. “This is where they want to be. They want to be on the big stage.” 

“What an excellent season,” McNair added. “I thought that coming into the season when we first started camp what the ultimate goal was and as a team what we set it out to be, to get back to the Celebration Bowl.”

The Celebration Bowl serves as the unofficial championship for historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and is the only active bowl that features teams from the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS). The top teams from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and the Southwestern Athletic Conference battle for the title each year.

The Celebration Bowl is produced by ESPN Events and showcases the rich tradition and talent of HBCU Football. The mission of the bowl is to “provide the schools, alumni, fans, and sponsors with a first-class bowl experience while continuing to celebrate the heritage, legacy, pageantry, and tradition of Historically Black Colleges and Universities.” 

The bowl has proven to do just that.

The NC A&T Aggies have been predicted a 71 percent chance of winning the bowl, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index. 

The team is led by Jah-Maine Martin, who leads the FCS in rushing yards. Martin finished the regular season with more than 1,400 yards and is a finalist for Black Football College Player of the Year. 

Alcorn State, who ranks 12th in scoring defense, will have to find ways to keep him limited.

“He’s a tough running back and I think he does well,” McNair said about Martin. “I think we have our work cut out for us…just containing him and slowing him down I think that will be big for our defense.”

That’s just the beginning of the match-up issues for the Braves. The Braves are currently 26th in scoring offense and will be coming up against a top 10 defense in the Aggies. Finding any holes and exploiting miss matches will be key for the Braves to take the throne from the Aggies.

“(NCA&T) has been doing a phenomenal job—they rank in the FCS, they rank nationally,” McNair said. “They play fast and do things well to attack the offense. We got a lot of work cut out for us for the next couple of days.”

Defending their title won’t just be a walk in the park for the Aggies, however. The Braves have some knack for getting to the football and rank #1 in the FCS in forcing turnovers. The Aggies will have to make sure they are executing the fundamentals and handling the ball with care.

“Our base philosophy is to stop the run and protect the football,” Washington said. “So we’ve talked considerably about protecting the football.”

The Alcorn State Braves take on the North Carolina A&T Aggies at the 2018 Celebration Bowl on December 15, 2018 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Photo by: Itoro N. Umontuen

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