Why the Celebration Bowl Is the Best Start to Bowl Season

The unofficial HBCU National Championship game is full of hidden gems—just ask Tarik Cohen

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Tomorrow marks the most exciting time of the year for all college football fans. Bowl season is finally here —10 teams are scheduled duke it out to see who will become victorious in five bowl games scheduled to appear on ESPN, ABC, and the CBS Sports Network.

But one of the least talked about matchups to kick off bowl season is a game that showcases the slept on talent who have decided to take the FCS route. The third annual Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl will feature the ultimate matchup of champions from the SWAC and the MEAC. The North Carolina A&T Aggies (9-2) will be facing off against the Alcorn State Braves (9-3) to determine who has earned the rights to the title "baddest HBCU football program in the land".

The newly built Mercedes-Benz Stadium is the place to be to witness another epic showdown of what is considered the HBCU National Championship. As the world finally learns about some of the unbelievable talents that go to these prestigious institutions, the culture and whirlwind of HBCU sports are ready to emerge as the next big thing college sports. 

Today, we're taking a walk through the rich history of HBCU sports and why you should get pumped the hell up for this year's epic matchup.

1. Last year's game was crazy

The battle between two of FCS's most underrated programs came alive when two top 25 FCS schools faced off in Atlanta last year. North Carolina A&T, the winner of the MEAC faced off against Grambling State, winner of the SWAC. The buildup of this matchup can be written as a Disney movie as both programs have endured an interesting storyline. Both teams have already participated in the game as A&T won the inaugural game and Grambling defeated NC Central to win it in 2016.

Leading up to this matchup, A&T finished the regular season undefeated and ranked #7 in the FCS top 25. Their coach Rod Broadway left Grambling to take the coaching gig at A&T in 2011 and has turned the program around from their losing ways. Meanwhile, Grambling State—known for its rich history of producing NFL talent with the help of college football's most heralded coaches, Eddie Robinson—is trying to get back to their glory days of becoming a perennial powerhouse in the  SWAC. Their head coach, Broadrick Fobbs, comes from a family of coaches. His dad, Lee, was NC A&T's coach from 2006 to 2008.

In the end, quarterback Lamar Raynard secured a win for his Aggie squad with a one-yard touchdown with 38 seconds left to defeat Grambling State 21-14. The MEAC player of the year threw for 243 yards while his teammate, running back Marquell Cartwright was named the game's offensive MVP after rushing for 110 yards on 20 attempts and garnering 54 receiving yards on 3 catches that resulted in two touchdowns.

2. There's elite talent in the league

In the bowl's inaugural matchup that happened in 2015, North Carolina A&T was led by running back Tarik Cohen who rushed for 295 yards while scoring 3 touchdowns to walk away with the offensive MVP and a thrilling 41-34 win over the Alcorn State Braves. Cohen now stars for the Bears.

Games like this can be considered coming out parties for many underrated talents. This year's matchup is no different as there are at least three players who are flying under the radar who may be given the chance to play for an NFL team next year.

Marquell Cartwright, RB

This bulky back has been tearing up the field while giving defensive coordinators headaches for the past two seasons. Cartwright has two consecutive seasons where he rushed for 1,000 yards and better. He has 2,822 career rushing yards and 32 touchdowns on 5 yards per carry. This kid is a flat out baller who can be a great asset for a one-two punch of a power bruising run game system.

Darryl Johnson, DE

Standing at 6'5", 231 pounds, Johnson has been a man amongst boys in the MEAC. This year's conference defensive player of the year racked up 10.5 sacks. His hard work and speed alone is something NFL scouts help get the looks he rightfully deserves. 

Raidarious Anderson, WR

Alcorn State's leading receiver for the Braves this season has racked up 32 receptions for 502 yards and three touchdowns. With a 6''5", 198 pound frame, Anderson can be an awesome one-on-one mismatch in the red zone. Only a junior, he possesses a high amount of potential to become a breakout star.

3. HBCU sports is a cultural phenomenon

Many of our favorite athletes have come from big-time programs who accumulated a slew of national championships and legacy-changing wins. But there are some legendary athletes who have created their own lane leaving a stamp onto the game from attending HBCUs. Check out these immortal sports legends who changed the way we watch sports today.

Shannon Sharpe, Delaware State

Before he argued down Skip and became a cultural phenomenon with his outrageous outtakes that are often turned into memes and gifs, Shannon Sharpe was a gridiron stud. During his time at DSU, he was a three-time All-Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference selection and a three-time Black College All-American. In 1987, the Denver Broncos drafted him in the 7th round and the rest was history. He went on to win two Super Bowls during his nine years at Denver as well as winning one in 2000 with the Baltimore Ravens. Now a football hall of fame, he racked up to 815 catches for over 10,000 yards and 69 touchdowns.  

Rick Mahorn, Hampton University

A member of the "bad boys" era for the Detroit Pistons that won an NBA title in 1989, Mahorn was a scoring sensation for the Pirates of Hampton University. During his tenure in the 757, he became a three-time NAIA All-American while averaging 20.3 points and 12.3 rebounds a game.

Steve McNair, Alcon State

This former do-it-all quarterback transcended the way the quarterback is being played today. This Alcon State great was a three-time first-team All-Southwestern Athletic Conference standout who threw an unprecedented 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns. He went on to see FCS records for most passing yards in his division (14,496) as well as total offensive yards (16,283 yards)

Earl Monroe, Winston-Salem State

The owner of arguably the greatest sports nickname in nickname history, "Black Jesus," Earl "The Pearl" Monroe is a hooper's hooper. This Philly born legend tore the NCAA Division II competition into shreds as he averaged 41.5 points a game his senior year. While at Winston-Salem State, he helped led his squad to a 77-74 win over Southwest Missouri State to win the 1967 Division II National Championship after lighting it up for 40 points.

Jerry Rice, Mississipi Valley State

The GOAT amongst GOATs. Rice's legendary status as a gridiron immortal started at Mississippi Valley State where he rewrote the record books. He racked up 4,693 yards during his four years at the school. His senior campaign along helped him solidify his spot as a first-round draft pick, where he compiled 1,845 yards and scored 28 touchdowns.

During his tenure in the NFL, Rice became the prototype of what an NFL wide receiver should be. A three-time Super Bowl champ, 13-time Pro Bowler, a member of the 1980s, 1990s and 75th Anniversary All-Time team, Jerry became the reason why hidden gems can be discovered at a small campus near you.

On top of everything, you get the bands

When you attend an HBCU football game, be prepared to shake your tailfeather. One of the reasons HBCU sports is heralded as an underrated experience is the outstanding performances of the schools' marching band programs. While sports reign supreme in HBCU culture, music programs have become a foundation that brings authenticity and originality to an HBCU campus. The loud, bodacious style of music that is being played at games or at pep rallies on campus—makes a student's college experience one in a million. 

With bands playing some of today's hip-hop and R&B songs, don't be surprised if a halftime show turns into a party as the marching band never fails to make sure the fans continue to stay engaged. Here are some prime examples of why movies such as Drumline are made to showcase how fascinating the marching band is to HBCU sports and culture.

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