When the subject of black college football comes up, the game itself is usually low on the priority list to most people. Even more so, when you put the word "Classic" in front of it. Division II powerhouses Winston-Salem State and Tuskegee hope to show fans at Saturday's Cleveland Classic, that the action on the field is just as good, if not better than the halftime show.
In general, the world of HBCU classic football games is generally part concert, part fashion show, with a game sandwiched in the middle. Kind of like the older cousin of All-Star Weekend. Folks come to party, to mingle…and party some more. If they make it to the football game between parties, they usually leave shortly after halftime–right after the band makes its way off the field. If the fans at First Energy Stadium do that on Saturday, they just might miss the best part of the entire weekend.
For the past two seasons, Winston-Salem State has been the premier HBCU team in the country, Division I or otherwise. Just three years removed from a botched attempt to move up to Division I, the Rams made it all the way to the D2 Championship Game. Though they lost 35-7 to Valdosta State, WSSU's 14-1 record opened plenty of eyes and raised the stakes for HBCU football as a whole.
Meanwhile, down in Alabama, Tuskegee wrapped up its 28th SIAC title and finished with a 10-2 record. Despite its successful season, Tuskegee did not participate in the D2 playoffs due to its participation in the annual Turkey Day Classic against Alabama State. After watching WSSU become the first HBCU to play in an NCAA Championship Game in nearly 30 years just down the road in Huntsville, Tuskegee decided they wanted in on it too. So it made the controversial decision to opt-out of the longest running HBCU Classic, explaining its reasoning after releasing its schedule.
"Inspired by the run of Winston Salem State last season, Tuskegee Football feels that the move will allow the Golden Tigers more freedom to play further into the postseason by participating in the NCAA Division II playoffs, if eligible."
Both No.17 Tuskegee and No.19 Winston-Salem State will enter Saturday's contest with something to prove. Tuskegee enters the contest 2-0, already having beaten in state, Division I rival Alabama A&M and fellow SIAC contender Albany State. The Golden Tigers are led by junior quarterback Justin Nared on offense and former USF linebacker Quavon Taylor (27 tackles).
Winston-Salem State opened the season with tons of hype, headlined by All-American linebacker Carlos Fields, 30 Division I transfers and a top-five national ranking. However, its 20 game regular season winning streak was snapped when it lost in the season opener. WSSU snapped back into form with a 62-8 win over Virginia University of Lynchburg last week, but head coach Connell Maynor knows they are facing a different animal this week.
“It’s one win,” Maynor told the Winston-Salem Journal. “This is what we are used to, but now we have to come out and have a good week of practice after a win. We can’t have a lull after a big win because Tuskegee is a good team and we’ll have to be ready.”
Neither of these teams is new to this, as both teams have experience in big game situations. Tuskegee has played in front of big crowds at the TDC and WSSU beat Morehouse in the Cleveland Classic last year.
This game could potentially have long-term implications should the two make the playoffs, and both teams will be out to prove that they are the team to beat in D2 HBCU football.
If this game lives up to its billing, HBCU fans just might have a game worthy of the "classic" title on their hands.