The Matchup – SWAC champion Alcorn State (9-3, 6-1) vs. MEAC champion North Carolina A&T (8-3, 6-2) in the fifth annual Celebration Bowl
Kickoff – Noon Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta
Coverage – ABC
Series – North Carolina A&T leads 2-1, winning the last two meetings in the Celebration Bowl (2015 and 2018)
Coaches – Alcorn State: Fred McNair (30-17, four seasons); North Carolina A&T: Sam Washington (18-5, two seasons)
Players to Watch – Alcorn State: QB Felix Harper (179 of 296, 2,613 yards, 30 TDs, 8 INTs), RB Niko Duffey (152 carries, 790 yards, 6 TDs; 24 receptions, 227 yards, 2 TDs), WR LeCharles Pringle (42 receptions, 762 yards, 14 TDs), LB Solomon Muhammad (81 tackles, 9½ tackles loss, 4 takeaways), FS Qwynnterrio Cole (78 tackles, 5 INTs); North Carolina A&T: QB Kylil Carter (137 of 254, 1,856 yards, 12 TDs, 3 INTs; 104 carries, 483 yards, 2 TDs), RB Jah-Maine Martin (171 carries, 1,336 yards, 21 TDs), WR Elijah Bell (53 receptions, 782 yards, 6 TDs), LT Marcus Pettiford (MEAC offensive lineman of year), CB Mac McCain (21 tackles, 5 pass breakups, 2 fumble recoveries)
The Skinny – The Celebration Bowl, the lone bowl game to feature FCS schools, is synonymous with close games – the first four were decided by a combined 15 points. North Carolina A&T is a three-time champ, including twice over Alcorn. Alcorn leads the FCS in turnovers gained with 34 and ranks No. 1 in the SWAC in scoring defense (19.7 ppg) and total defense (328.5 ypg). The Braves’ 4-2-5 defense is always aggressive and boasts All-SWAC standouts Muhammad and Cole. QB Harper has played efficiently for much of the season, but the SWAC offensive player of the year threw three interceptions against Southern in the conference championship game. RB De’Shawn Waller has been limited to 458 rushing yards behind Duffey during an injury-plagued season, but he is healthy again and rushed for 167 yards in last year’s Celebration Bowl. N.C. A&T has to work off the rust of a four-week layoff, but the Aggies are experienced with the scenario given their history in the bowl game. Martin leads the FCS with 7.8 yards per carry, scoring on nine runs of at least 50 yards, and Carter has a top passing option in Bell, who’s caught 200 passes for 2,907 yards and 31 TDs in his career. The defense, which boasts a bunch of influential young players, has two shutouts and ranks No. 3 nationally in allowing just 270.4 yards per game. Incredibly, the Aggies’ starting linebackers are two sophomores (Kyin Howard and Joseph Stuckey) and a freshman (Jacob Roberts). Both teams have excellent kickers: Corey McCullough owns the Alcorn career record with 44 field goals, while N.C. A&T’s Noel Ruiz is 21-for-25 with a long of 52 yards this season, although he’s missed more PATs (39 of 44) than field goals.
Prediction – N.C. A&T is a small favorite in perhaps the closest Celebration Bowl on paper, which is saying something given the game’s brief history. A potential difference maker: Alcorn proved it could run on the Aggies in last year’s matchup. Alcorn State, 28-22.