There has always been a cynicism within the FCS ranks about exactly where the HBCU teams "fit in" when it comes to the national rankings, the unofficial FCS "elite" status, playoff berths — you name it.
One can understand the questions. Teams from the MEAC and the SWAC have only won 8 of 53 FCS Playoff games during their existence. A couple of years ago, the MEAC and SWAC agreed to take their champs out back and play for a head-to-head HBCU national title in the Celebration Bowl, leaving the FCS Playoff structure.
So when North Carolina A&T had its magical undefeated 2017 season, one still had to wonder — what would happen if this Aggies team matched up with one of the perennial Top 10 FCS Playoff teams? You know, one of those teams that has played in December five years in a row, like Jacksonville State?
We received that gift matchup Saturday, and the Aggies proved that if they did go the FCS Playoffs route, they'd be formidable. After tonight's 20-17 win over nationally ranked Jacksonville State, they've now won 13 games in a row and will be riding high going into their game at FBS East Carolina next weekend — aiming for their third year in a row with an FBS win (Kent State in 2016 and Charlotte in 2017).
To the rest of the FCS? You had best be glad that the MEAC champion goes to the Celebration Bowl and not the FCS Playoffs, because they'd be a legitimate matchup problem in the first or second round for a CAA or SoCon program. The only way N.C. A&T finds its way to the FCS Playoffs this year is if somebody in the MEAC knocks it out of the Celebration Bowl berth. If a team like Howard or Florida A&M or any other knocks the Aggies off their expected perch? Your favorite FCS program might be matching up with the Aggies.
This program is mostly intact from 2017, has several offensive weapons to go with one of the top statistical defenses of last season, is physical and capable. And consistent. Oh, and that coaching transition went pretty well on Saturday. Rod Broadway retired after much success and Sam Washington just picked up where he left off in his head coaching debut with the Aggies.
Again, FCS teams on the eastern seaboard? You might want to start rooting for North Carolina A&T to stay in the Celebration Bowl and away from a potential FCS Playoff team.
On a slightly different note … kudos to these two programs for hanging it out there for a game that, well, could turnout to be a non-conference loss without a million dollar bonus check attached to it. When you're trying to figure out which program is better than another come November, games like Saturday's are key measuring stick affairs. Jacksonville State could have taken this slot in its schedule and lined up a cream puff or scheduled Alabama or LSU and taken a likely loss with a million dollar payout.
Instead, Jacksonville State risked its rep by agreeing to play in this FCS Kickoff Classic the past two years, but took it on. A neutral site game (though relatively close to home) means you can't control everything and the entire college town community may not fill the stands. JSU took this on last year and this year at the Cramton Bowl in Montgomery, Ala., about two hours from campus.
The Gamecocks were challenged quite a bit more on Saturday than they'd be in a blowout against a lower division team. It'll pay dividends that QB Zerrick Cooper was harassed like he was today. It took the Clemson transfer some time to adjust, and he did and it paid dividends late. If Cooper played like he did in the second half for the entire game?
There's no question JSU would have won this game.
So to sum up? To the antagonists on social media who chimed in all night about these two programs slogging through their game? Hey, that's what happens when both teams play good defense. It's not pretty, it's football. If you want pretty, dial up the Arena League in the Alps or whatever and let us know how it goes. Tonight was sweaty trench hell, Southern nasty, a slobber knocker that could have been won by either team.
Do you really want it any other way?
FCS KICKOFF CLASSIC HISTORY
|Sam Houston St.
|North Carolina A&T
FCS PREVIEWS CONFERENCE BY CONFERENCE
Aug. 19 – Missouri Valley & Ohio Valley
Aug. 20 – Southland, SoCon & Big South
Aug. 21 – MEAC & SWAC
Aug. 22 – CAA & NEC
Aug. 23 – Big Sky & Pioneer
Aug. 24 – Patriot & Ivy