Both teams in Saturday’s Celebration Bowl, SWAC champion Jackson State and MEAC champion North Carolina Central, have something hanging over them.
With Jackson State, it isn’t even Deion Sanders coaching in his final game before he heads off to lead Colorado’s program, with some Tigers players and recruits in tow.
No, it’s more the two-time reigning SWAC champ’s surprising loss to South Carolina State in last year’s Celebration Bowl, and the Tigers’ desire to put that behind them and complete an unbeaten season.
North Carolina Central comes in as the supporting actor to Coach Prime’s final FCS storyline, but the Eagles are more interested in building on the MEAC’s 5-1 record in the de facto HBCU national championship game, while knowing their program was responsible for the conference’s lone loss against Grambling State in 2016.
Following is a capsule preview of the seventh annual Celebration Bowl:
Jackson State (12-0) vs. North Carolina Central (9-2)
Kickoff – Noon ET on Saturday (ABC) at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta
Series – Jackson State leads 3-0 (last meeting: Jackson State won 10-9 at home on Oct. 3, 1987)
Coaches – Jackson State: Deion Sanders (27-5, third season – final game after being named Colorado’s new coach on Dec. 3; assistant T.C. Taylor has been tabbed as the new head coach); North Carolina Central: Trei Oliver (19-15, third season)
5 Players to Watch – Jackson State: QB Shedeur Sanders (314 of 448, 3,403 yards, 36 TDs, 6 INTs; 5 TD runs), RB Sy’Veon Wilkerson (212 carries, 1,100 yards, 9 TDs; 19 receptions), WR Shane Hooks (59 receptions, 705 yards, 10 TDs), LB Aubrey Miller Jr. (106 tackles, 11 TFL, 4 FF, 2 FR), DE Justin Ragin (38 tackles, 16 TFL, 10 sacks); North Carolina Central: QB Davius Richard (184 of 291, 2,486 yards, 24 TDs, 10 INTs; 691 rushing yards, 10 TDs), RB Latrell Collier (159 carries, 881 yards, 8 TDs; 27 receptions), RG Robert Mitchell (MEAC Offensive Lineman of Year, no sacks allowed), FS Khalil Baker (51 tackles, 4 INTs, 5 PBU, FR), Rover Manny Smith (55 tackles, 4 TFL, 4 PBU, 2 FF)
Notable – Prior to each Celebration Bowl, the MEAC champ has a four-week break from the end of the regular season, which is twice as long as the SWAC champion, whose conference holds a championship game. The two teams boast their conference’s offensive and defensive players of the year, respectively, with Sanders and Miller in the SWAC and Richard and Baker in the MEAC. The game’s pivotal question is if NCCU’s offense, which lacks elite receivers, can solve JSU’s FCS-leading defense, which is allowing only 11.3 points and 233.2 yards per game. The Eagles have been the best in the FCS on third downs, converting on 82 of 143 attempts (57.3%). Their defense, which utilizes a 4-2-5 base alignment, must be balanced in defending Wilkerson against the run and the WR duo of Hooks and Dallas Daniels (60 receptions). The Tigers also have sought to spotlight freshman WR/DB Travis Hunter since a midseason return from injury. The place-kickers have been accurate on relatively short field-goal attempts: JSU freshman Alejandro Mata is 12 of 13 overall and NCCU’s Adrian Olivo 11 of 13, including a walk-off winner to end the regular season.
Prediction – Jackson State 30, North Carolina Central 17