The year in HBCU football has belonged to Jackson State, Deion Sanders and the Southwestern Athletic Conference, but there’s one final hurdle, and it’s a pretty big one.

Jackson State (11-1), the SWAC champion, will face Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference winner South Carolina State (6-5) in the sixth annual Celebration Bowl on Saturday in Atlanta.

Meeting for the first time in 30 years, the two programs are appearing in the season-ending bowl for the first time, with the MEAC having captured four of the first five matchups, albeit with former member North Carolina A&T. The Celebration Bowl was last held in 2019 because last year’s game was canceled due to the pandemic.

Sanders, named the FCS coach of the year in winning the Stats Perform Eddie Robinson Award, will square off against Buddy Pough, the dean of HBCU coaches on the FCS level.

South Carolina State (6-5, 5-0 MEAC) vs. Jackson State (11-1, 8-0 SWAC)

Kickoff – Noon ET Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta (ABC)

Series – Tied 2-2 (South Carolina State won 26-22 in the last meeting in 1994)

Coaches – South Carolina State: Oliver “Buddy” Pough (142-79, 20 seasons); Jackson State: Deion Sanders (15-4, including one forfeit, two seasons)

5 Players to Watch – South Carolina State: QB Corey Fields (169 of 333, 2,144 yards, 14 TDs, 12 INTs), RB Kendrell Flowers (158 carries, 811 yards, 10 TDs; 22 receptions, 147 yards, 2 TDs), WR Shaquan Davis (38 receptions, 769 yards, 5 TDs), LB Chad Gilchrist (70 tackles, 7 TFL, 2 forced fumbles), CB Decobie Durant (37 tackles, 3 INTs, 11 pass breakups); Jackson State: QB Shedeur Sanders (256 of 377, 3,056 yards, 29 TDs, 6 INTs), WR Keith Corbin III (65 receptions, 897 yards, 6 TDs), DE James Houston (64 tackles, 21.5 TFL, 14.5 sacks, 7 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries), DT Antwan Owens (60 tackles, 17 TFL, 6 sacks), LB Aubrey Miller Jr. (100 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 3 pass breakups)  

5 Key Factors – 1. Jackson State secured a ninth straight win by capturing the SWAC championship game on Dec. 4, while South Carolina State will be coming off the MEAC champion’s annual four-week layoff from the regular season. 2. Each defense seeks pressure on the opposing quarterback. SCSU boasts the defensive end duo of Jeblonski Green and Patrick Godbolt, and JSU has allowed too many sacks (33). JSU’s defense leads the FCS in sacks (52), with Houston second individually in sacks per game (1.21). 3. Offensive balance will help SCSU combat a JSU defense that ranks second in the FCS in fewest yards allowed per game (255.9). Flowers heated up toward the end of the regular season, averaging 127.7 rushing yards with five overall touchdowns over the final four games. 4. Ball security is vital. No FCS team has fewer fumbles than SCSU (just two – both lost), but the Bulldogs have thrown 13 interceptions. JSU’s Shedeur Sanders, the Jerry Rice Award recipient as the national freshman of the year, has an outstanding TD pass-to-interception ratio (29-to-6), but the Tigers have fumbled 19 times and lost 13 of them. 5. SCSU’s kickers have been stronger than JSU’s, but the Bulldogs coverage teams have been below average and the Tigers feature two dominating returners – Isaiah Bolden has averaged an FCS-high 36.9 yards and scored two TDs on 16 kickoff returns, while Warren Newman has scored once on 25 punt returns and averaged 16.9 yards, ranking third nationally.  

Prediction – Jackson State 27, South Carolina State 16

Graphic by Matt Sisneros.