At night, as you drive down I-85 you can see the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium lit up in the distance. It is a fitting metaphor for teams in the MEAC and SWAC conferences who all start the season with the goal of making it to Atlanta where the championship for the two conferences will be held. This year, it happens to be the same goal for FBS teams with Atlanta also hosting the College Football Playoff title game. The Celebration Bowl is a championship for the two conferences, and a serendipitous start to bowl season previewing college football’s final scene for the 2017 season in Atlanta.
It is a movie script not lost on Celebration Bowl executive director John Grant, who borrows an analogy from a recent scientific event to explain the uniqueness of the 2017-18 college football bowl season.
“I describe [the 2017-18 bowl season] like a full lunar eclipse, it only comes every so many years,” Grant explains. “Atlanta, as a city, will open the bowl season with a championship, and we will close the bowl season with a championship.”
The hallway of the Celebration Bowl office features a makeshift putting green to practice your short game. If golf is the metric of choice, the Celebration Bowl has hit a hole in one since its 2015 inception. Last year’s game was a one-point thriller, while Tarik Cohen rushed for 295 yards and three touchdowns as North Carolina A&T defeated Alcorn State in a shootout in the inaugural matchup.
This all happens on prime TV real estate as the Celebration Bowl kicks off bowl season each year on ABC as the very first game of the postseason. Bowl season is similar to a buffet, nothing is ever as good as the first plate. If the New Year’s Six games are the dessert, the Celebration Bowl functions as the first slice of meat at the carving station with delicious results. The Celebration Bowl has ranked in TV’s top five rated bowl games played before New Year’s Day.
Bigger than the results on the field, the Celebration Bowl provides exposure for students, teams and conferences that have been previously overlooked. HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) football is not new. We just may not have been paying close enough attention. The 2017 Celebration Bowl marks the culmination of 125 years of HBCU football, and it is this century-long journey that has paved the way for the postseason matchup.
What Is the Celebration Bowl?
Casual fans turning on Saturday’s game may be unfamiliar with exactly what they are watching, but the best way to describe it is Grambling and North Carolina A&T are competing for a championship. Grant noted this game has been 10 years in the making as the two conferences were initially reluctant to choose a bowl game over participation in the FCS playoffs.
In 2014, the conferences approved the creation of the Celebration Bowl, in part, thanks to an economic incentive that helped encourage the conferences to take a risk in playing in a bowl over the traditional postseason path. Each conference gets a million dollars for the participating Celebration Bowl teams. It is a unique approach as the bowl becomes a money-maker for universities rather than a drain on the athletic budget that many schools experience when their football team earns a bowl bid.
Grant explains the journey that led to the creation of the Celebration Bowl.
“Historically Black Colleges and Universities have been playing football for 125 years,” says Grant. “This year marks the 125th anniversary of the first game, but they have never had bowl games [prior to the Celebration Bowl]. I think the idea of [the bowl] being presented, and [the conferences] not really understanding because you have never been involved with it what the benefits could be. The prestige was, ‘Let’s pursue the playoffs.’ The realization after doing [the Celebration Bowl] was, ‘Why were we doing that?'”
Grant goes on to explain the benefits schools like Alabama have seen from playing for national championships and marquee games including the rise of out-of-state student enrollment. Collegiate sports are far from a perfect product, but do offer universities exposure in a way few other things can. The hope is that the Celebration Bowl can help elevate the enrollment for participating universities, something schools are already seeing happen in the few years the bowl has been in existence. North Carolina A&T, one of the inaugural participants, saw their applications go up 90 percent after playing in the 2015 bowl game.
The national television audience has helped, but the bowl also has a strategic location. Atlanta is the geographic midpoint for both conferences, and Grant also notes the data shows Atlanta is the most popular travel destination among African-Americans. This year, Atlanta is of particular significance with the city also hosting the College Football Playoff championship.
“After the CFP championship game leaves Atlanta, that full lunar eclipse will not occur until the championship rotates around and comes back to Atlanta,” Grant explains. “This is Atlanta’s moment from a college football point of view.”
Grambling State Takes on North Carolina A&T as the Bowl’s Past Winners Square Off
There are numerous reasons for the Celebration Bowl’s popularity, but one of the big reasons is the caliber of football being played. Grambling has not lost since the beginning of September, and has rattled off 11 straight wins. North Carolina A&T is a perfect 11-0, including a win over Conference USA’s Charlotte. The game also features the Celebration Bowl’s first two winners, meaning one team will win their second championship in three years.
The coaches are another story line as North Carolina A&T’s coach Rod Broadway was formerly the coach at Grambling, before leaving for N.C. A&T after the 2010 season.
There’s also star power on the field led by Grambling quarterback DeVante Kincade, who started his college career at Ole Miss. Kincade had offers from a number of other schools including Notre Dame and Texas Tech. Kincade told Yahoo Sports he left Oxford to be closer to his mother who was dealing with health issues.
Football Gameplan’s Emory Hunt projects Kincade as a Day 3 prospect in the 2018 NFL Draft, and Kincade has an opportunity to improve his draft stock even more on the national stage this weekend.
“DeVante Kincade transferred from Ole Miss,” Grant notes. “He’s going to get drafted and is a heck of a quarterback. Since he’s been at Grambling, Grambling was last year’s national champions. This year, they are undefeated in the conference, and have only lost one game [and have a chance to win another championship on Saturday].”
With 40 bowl games, it is easy to be skeptical of each game’s importance. As the confetti rains down on Saturday with the victors raising the trophy, remind yourself it is a preview of what is to come on January 8th.
In the words of Jay-Z, the “grand opening and grand closing” of the college football season.