The eyes of the football world will converge on Atlanta this weekend when Alcorn State and North Carolina Central face off in the 2021 MEAC/SWAC Challenge, as it is one of seven games that will be played in the collegiate ranks. Even The Mouse is invited.
ESPN’s investing a lot of TV time into this year’s Challenge. First Take will make a virtual appearance on Friday, the College Gameday crew will be in Atlanta to experience HBCU tailgating Saturday morning, and the game itself will be played during primetime (6 p.m. CT) … and on the main network (ESPN), no less.
Both teams are looking to have a good outing in Center Parc Stadium, seeing as though they have a combined record of 0-5 in the ATL since 2016. So, somebody’s gotta win, right? Well, that’s not true. The 2016 game — played in Daytona Beach, Florida, between Bethune-Cookman and, yes, Alcorn State – was suspended in the second quarter due to weather. Oh yeah, weather reports claim that there may be a stray shower or thunderstorm this Saturday, but I digress.
Alcorn and Central were heading in different directions at the end of 2019. The Eagles finished the season 2-5 in their last seven games while being outscored 116-21 in the last three. On the other hand, the Braves finished the season strong, winning eight of their last nine games and a second consecutive SWAC Championship before coming up short to North Carolina A&T in the Celebration Bowl.
There will be a lot of fanfare for this event thanks to The Mothership, but there will also be uncertainty in this matchup as both teams have not played a game in over 1,250 days combined.
Even with the vagueness of how both programs will perform, not only in this game but throughout the 2021 fall season due to their long layoffs, experts seem to be clearer on their expectations of the team’s individual success. But before Alcorn or Central can plan on being back in Atlanta in December, it will help if they can be successful on Saturday first.
Here are a few things to look for in Saturday night’s contest:
Braves On the Warpath
After opting out of the spring 2021 season due to COVID concerns, Coach Fred McNair is looking to lead Alcorn to their seventh divisional title in eight years (this time, in the SWAC’s Western Division), their third SWAC Championship in four seasons, and becoming the first SWAC program to play in three consecutive Celebration Bowls.
While Alcorn State looks to be the perennial favorite, not a single player was voted to the first or second preseason All-SWAC teams. It wasn’t omission by choice.
During their Media Day, SWAC Commissioner Dr. Charles McClelland explained that student-athletes who were selected to the spring 2021 All-SWAC Team at the conclusion of the season retained their respective spots on the team. Open positions were filled with the next highest vote recipient and in any instances where that was not possible those positions were voted upon.
Even without the acknowledgments from their conference, the Braves will be returning their leading rusher (RB Niko Duffey) passer (QB Felix Harper), and the player with the most receiving TDs in the SWAC (LeCharles Pringle) from 2019, while adding transfers WR CJ Bolar (Vanderbilt) and TE Jeremy Brown (UAPB).
There will be new faces on the defensive side of the ball as well, with DBs Emanuel Dabney (Liberty), Malcolm Magee (Colorado State), and E.J. Thomas (Kansas State) joining returnees DB Taurence Wilson and LB Damien Anderson.
After a rough rookie campaign, coach Trei Oliver will be focused on rebounding NCCU back to the championship prominence they achieved in 2016. For that to happen, Central’s coaching staff will have to learn to succeed with several new faces on the roster.
Even with 12 starters returning to Durham — eight of which will be on the offense, including All-MEAC preseason selections RB Isaiah Totten and OL Robert Mitchell — the team will have competition at multiple positions on both sides of the ball. For example, QB Davius Richard started 10 games under center in 2019. However, it has been reported that Oliver believes that no starting job is safe.
“The only person that’s got a job right now is me. Everything else is up for grabs, but these guys got to compete every day,” Oliver recently said to Spectrum News.
Which is understandable. The Eagles’ offense averaged a paltry 7.0 PPG in their last three games of 2019.
With the departures of DB Deonta Fair, DL Darius Royster, and DB Bryan Mills, the MEAC’s top-ranked pass and fourth-down conversion percentage defense in 2019 has a plethora of holes to fill. Not just in roster spots — with All-MEAC DB Stephen Stokes, DL Jessie Malit, DB Justin Nicholson, and DB Manny Smith as their only returning starters – but in their play. Central’s defense allowed over 34 PPG in their eight losses in 2019.
The MEAC has dominated the SWAC over the last 20 years, garnering a record of 43-25 during that time frame along with being 10-4 all-time in The Challenge. It looks like the fortunes of the SWAC will begin to change this year, starting with this game.
No team has gone on to start and finish their season in Atlanta, playing in both the MEAC/SWAC Challenge and the Celebration Bowl in the same season. The Braves have a strong chance of being the first to ever achieve that feat. Even though it really doesn’t hold any bearing on what happens this Saturday, the Braves are 5-0 against the Eagles all-time.
I don’t anticipate Lee Corso wearing Eddie The Eagle’s head at Noon.
My Pick: Braves 30, Eagles 14