Rivalry games always mean something. You’ve heard the cliches. And for the most part, they fit.
But on Saturday, three in-state rivalry games will have more than just bragging rights on the line in the HBCU world. Two teams are fighting for one bid to a bowl game, while the other will be fighting to get one step closer to a conference title game and the other invite to the bowl game.
North Carolina A&T will hit I-40 East to Greensboro on Saturday knowing that its fate is only partially in its hands. Taking on arch-rival North Carolina Central is always enough to get the blood boiling, but as has often been the case in this rivalry recently, there is a lot on the line.
A win over NCCU would improve A&T’s record to 9-2. It would mark the fifth consecutive year the school has won at least nine games, something not a lot of teams in any division can say. That record would likely be good enough to qualify for the FCS playoffs for the second time in three years.
But even if A&T beats its rival it won’t control its own destiny. That’s because a win or a loss could still hand A&T the MEAC title, or not.
The key to the MEAC title and its spot in the Celebration Bowl will be the Battle of Florida. Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M will meet in a rivalry game just as bitter and for the first time in a long time, just as significant.
FAMU is currently 5-1 in MEAC play, tied with A&T for the best record in the conference, even though both teams have lost two games against MEAC opponents.
Bethune-Cookman comes into the game with a 4-2 MEAC record. It doesn’t have a shot at the Celebration Bowl, but it can steal a piece of the title and keep its rival from going to Atlanta.
A BCU loss plus an A&T win makes A&T the outright champion. A BCU win plus an NCCU loss means that FAMU, BCU, and A&T would all share the MEAC title.
A&T would go to Atlanta for the third time in four seasons to battle the SWAC Champion. Simply put, if FAMU wins, it is in as it owns the potential two-way tiebreaker with A&T. Anything less and A&T is headed back to the Celebration Bowl.
The SWAC Championship Game is still two weeks away, but it will have de facto division championship games the next two Saturdays.
The winner of the SWAC East will come out of Mississippi. Rivals Jackson State and Alcorn State took two different roads to get there.
ASU is not surprised it is still in the running for the SWAC title and Celebration Bowl bid. It has been to the last four SWAC Championship Games (winning two) and was predicted to return for a fifth heading into this season.
JSU, however, looked like its season was over three weeks ago when it was blown out by Southern. Twenty-four hours later, its coach was fired and everyone expected it to just play out the string. Back-to-back wins have gotten it back in the race and the winner of this game will take on the Bayou Classic winner for the conference title.
The NCAA Division II playoffs kick off this weekend as well, and for the first time in a long time, there is only one HBCU represented. Bowie State, the newly-crowned CIAA champs, will host West Alabama on Saturday. It’s the third appearance in four years for BSU and the second year in a row it has hosted a game. It will also look to be the first CIAA team since Virginia State in 2014 to win a playoff game. If not, it will be the last game in uniform for Amir Hall, who will soon set his sights on the NFL.