Saturday, December 19, 2015

North Carolina A&T: 2015 Celebration Bowl/HBCU National Champions



North Carolina A&T defeated Alcorn State 41-34 in a wild debut for the Celebration Bowl.
Wait.
If you're wondering what exactly the Celebration Bowl is, you're not alone. Rather than participate in the FCS Playoffs, the SWAC and MEAC champions are meeting in the Celebration Bowl, with the winner claiming the crown of historically black college and university (HBCU) national champion. It's the first matchup of this type for HBCUs since 1999, which the Heritage Bowl ceased operations. The Heritage Bowl ran from 1991-1999, and previously, the Pelican Bowl was held in 1972, 1974, and 1975.
Aside from the fun plays on the field, there's lots of reasons this game is a good thing.

It's great exposure.

And with the national TV coverage and early time slot, it's great exposure for schools and conferences that don't normally get much. The FCS Playoffs have gotten more coverage in recent years, but those games don't start appearing on cable until fairly late in the tournament. The Celebration Bowl kicks off on the first Saturday of bowl season on a major network, before any other bowls are there to soak up the attention.

The schools make more money.

Each conference will bank a $1 million payout, which means this game is much more lucrative than a Playoff appearance. That's $100,000 for each SWAC team, and nearly $91,000 for each MEAC team. If a team wants to host a first round FCS Playoff game, they need to submit a minimum bid to the NCAA of at least $30,000.

It's a competitive matchup.

Unlike most HBCU's past forays into the FCS Playoffs, this game should actually be pretty close. The last HBCU team to win the FCS title was in 1978, and they haven't gotten particularly close since. To play in this game, the MEAC gave up its automatic bid just to play in this game, and the SWAC didn't have an automatic bid into the Playoffs anyway.
And this year's game was great from the first whistle. There were four touchdowns in the first eight minutes of the game, and the shortest of them was 74 yards. Each team had a long punt return for a touchdown in the first half. North Carolina A&T running back Tarik Cohen ran for 171 yards and two touchdowns in the first half alone. And then there was the case of Alcorn State's Marquis Watford, who took out some frustrations by punching clean through a dang whiteboard.
The second half wasn't quite so explosive, but Alcorn State made up a two touchdown deficit to tie the game in the fourth quarter, with the game-tying touchdown pass coming from wide receiver Tollette George to quarterback Lenorris Footman. They would tie the game again later in the quarter on a fake field goal that went for a touchdown.

But despite all that craziness, it wasn't enough. Tarik Cohen scored the game-clinching touchdown on a 73-yard run right up the gut that was only his third-longest run of the game. Alcorn State drove all the way to the A&T nine yard line with 13 seconds left, but their final chance to tie the game fell incomplete in the end zone.
Cohen was absolutely sensational for the Aggies, and finished with 295 yards and three touchdowns on only 22 carries. Before this game, Cohen was probably best known for catching footballs while doing backflips. He was also their leading receiver in the game with 53 yards. A&T more than doubled Alcorn State's total yardage figure, 544 to 260, and it was the repeated big plays that made the difference for the Aggies.
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