The champions of the MEAC and SWAC square off annually in the Celebration Bowl in December, but the two conferences’ membership sometimes have their eyes on a different prize:

The FCS playoffs, and a chance to compete for the national championship.

Just as Jackson State coach Deion Sanders has talked recently about something “bigger” for his SWAC program and Florida A&M athletic director Kortne Gosha has campaigned for the Rattlers being considered worthy of an at-large bid to the upcoming playoffs, North Carolina A&T coach Sam Washington was doing the same thing three and a half years ago in the offseason after his then-MEAC program won the Celebration Bowl for the second of four times.

“I think (the playoffs are) the ultimate goal of this football team,” Washington said in 2018.

“I’m looking forward to that challenge one day.”

The numbers – especially the seven-figure payday that goes to each conference – suggest the MEAC and SWAC are well served by the Celebration Bowl instead of having their champions go into the playoffs on automatic bids, like most FCS conferences.

The Celebration Bowl, which began in 2015, is nationally televised and part football/part social gathering, averaging well over 31,000 fans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, which far exceeds typical FCS playoff attendances. The 2020 bowl was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it returns on Dec. 18.

Washington was N.C. A&T’s defensive coordinator the last time a MEAC program appeared in the playoffs in 2016. The Aggies, in on an at-large bid after North Carolina Central qualified for the Celebration Bowl, lost 39-10 at Richmond in the first round. It marked the conference’s 20th straight defeat in the playoffs dating to 1999.

At least the MEAC has playoff wins – nine different schools have combined to go 6-31 all-time. The SWAC, which last had a playoff team in 1997 before it moved toward having an annual conference championship game, is 0-19 all-time between four programs.

Florida A&M is the only HBCU to win the FCS championship, capturing an inaugural four-team playoff in 1978, but that was prior to it joining the MEAC. The Rattlers were 3-6 in the playoffs as representatives of the conference, joined by North Carolina A&T and South Carolina State with wins.

This past summer, FAMU and Bethune-Cookman left the MEAC to join the SWAC and N.C. A&T moved into the Big South, which has an automatic bid to the playoffs. There’s a different feel to both HBCU conferences in the FCS, and for the larger SWAC, that includes a desire to pursue the national playoffs.