After a year of intense debate and anticipation, the Celebration Bowl is finally here.
This weekend, the best of the SWAC and the MEAC will meet up in a bowl game more than a decade in the making. Alcorn State, best known for producing Steve McNair, will take on North Carolina A&T, best known for its homecoming, and will represent the two FCS HBCU conferences at noon on Saturday.
The MEAC gave up its automatic bid to the FCS playoffs to send its champion to meet the SWAC winner. While the SWAC hasn’t participated in the playoffs since the late 1990s, the MEAC has and its decision to opt-out rubbed many fans the wrong way.
The action on the field should be compelling. Both teams have spent time in the national polls. Both have tough defenses and rely on ground-and-pound offensive schemes, so the game should be a combination of a slugfest and a chess match.
But make no mistake about it, the Celebration Bowl is about much more than football.
Since the Heritage Bowl ended in 1999, both conferences have believed they were superior to the other, but there wasn’t any real way to prove it. Of course the MEAC/SWAC Challenge has been around over a decade, but that was often a game of convenience more than competition, as the SWAC consistently sent teams that finished near the bottom while the MEAC has generally sent stronger teams. Saturday’s game will buy bragging rights for an entire year.
Unlike the previous bowls, this game has the financial backing to succeed as ESPN has given each conference $1 million for participating. While some are disappointed with opting out of the playoffs, it’s hard to argue with the money pumped into these athletic programs, most of which have to play money games against FBS opponents.
Whether Alcorn State or A&T comes away with the win, it looks like both conferences have a lot to celebrate.