When most people think of college rivalries in North Carolina, they think Duke vs North Carolina. If you are from the state, you might add UNC vs NC State to that list.
But the most compelling football rivalry in the college-rich state right now isn’t in the ACC. It’s in the MEAC.
For the third time in three seasons, North Carolina A&T’s matchup against North Carolina Central will have big-time implications. The winner gets a berth in The Celebration Bowl. The loser just might end up in the FCS Playoffs.
NCCU has played spoiler the last two seasons, keeping their rivals from gaining their sole conference title since 2003 and earning a piece of the championship as well.
This year, there will be no sharing. Both teams come into this game 7-0 in MEAC play, meaning that the winner will be declared the conference champions. A&T, led by all-everything running back Tarik Cohen, is currently 9-1 and ranked ninth in the FCS. A win would put them back in The Celebration Bowl against the SWAC Champion.
NCCU is 8-2, and ranked 20th in the FCS Coaches poll. They will look to use the home field to their advantage on Saturday, as they did back in 2014 when they beat A&T and helped complete a five-way tie for the conference crown.
A&T vs NCCU won’t be the only rivalry game in the MEAC, however. Up the road in the Tidewater, Norfolk State will travel to Hampton, hoping to keep its rival from finishing the season above .500. And down in Orlando, FAMU will look to end a five-year skid to its rival Bethune-Cookman, who is having its worst season in over a decade.
Over in the SWAC, one side of the bracket is already complete. Alcorn State has already clinched the SWAC East title, so everyone on that side will be playing for pride. It’s a different story in the West, where Grambling and Southern are both 7-0 in the conference and will look to remain undefeated as they take on Texas Southern and Mississippi Valley State. If both teams win as expected, then next week’s Bayou Classic will determine the SWAC West for the third year in a row as well.
And last but not least, the NCAA Division II Playoffs kick off this weekend. Both Winston-Salem State and Tuskegee have had playoff success in the recent past, with WSSU going to the national championship game in 2012 and Tuskegee winning two games last year. Both teams will come in as underdogs. WSSU will travel to New York to face LIU Post while Tuskegee will travel to South Carolina to take on Newberry.
Pound for pound, this might be the biggest week in the HBCU football season.