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Game on at the Air Force Celebration Bowl

Here’s a preview of the players to watch in Saturday’s game

On Saturday, North Carolina Central University and Grambling State University, winners of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) and Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC), respectively, will square off at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta to settle which historically black college or university (HBCU) football program is best in the country.

Last season, both teams were in the hunt for their conference titles, but N.C. Central finished behind North Carolina A&T State University, while Grambling lost to Alcorn State University, setting up the Aggies and the Braves in the inaugural ESPN Celebration Bowl. The Eagles and Tigers exacted revenge on those very same teams in this season’s conference title games, and await to do battle in the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl.

Both teams are coming in hot, as Grambling (11-1, 10-0 SWAC) has the FCS’ second-longest winning streak at 10 games, while N.C. Central (9-2, 8-0 MEAC) checks in at third with its nine-game winning streak.

Several top players had a hand in the success of their teams reaching the championship, and here are the players fans should expect to have a big impact on the decision of the game.

GRAMBLING‘S KEY PLAYERS

Quarterback DeVante Kincade made his way to the team last winter from Ole Miss. The Tigers offered Kincade, a redshirt sophomore, closer proximity to his mother in Dallas as she battled the effects of the stroke she suffered in 2014. Blood clots continued to be an ongoing problem for her, so Kincade’s move to Grambling made it easier for him to care for his mother.

Kincade’s year picked up substantially after the healing of the broken left foot he sustained while still a member of the Ole Miss football team, which forced him to miss Grambling’s spring workouts.

He’s come back from that injury in a big way, accounting for 31 passing touchdowns to only three interceptions, which is the best touchdown-to-interception ratio in the FCS of any passer with at least 23 touchdown passes. He has the top-ranked passing efficiency (172.8) in the SWAC and is third in the FCS overall.

Kincade also led the SWAC in completion percentage (65.5), passing yards (2,873) and touchdown passes (31), and his efforts were rewarded when he received the SWAC Offensive Player of the Year award.

“It really doesn’t matter where you end up playing,” Kincade told The Clarion-Ledger in January. “It’s what you do when you get to finally play. You can go to a school and create your legacy anywhere.

“[The Grambling coaches] kept telling me that they’re going to push me to be great. I told them that’s my mind-set. I’m hungry. I have a chance to showcase my skills. Now that I get an opportunity, I’m going to try my best to seize the opportunity, take advantage of it.”

Running back Martez Carter received first-team All-SWAC honors, rushing for 782 yards and nine touchdowns. Carter was named the Offensive Most Valuable Player for the SWAC championship game — his 348 all-purpose yards broke the conference championship record.

Justin Kelly, who rushed for 808 yards and eight scores, will occasionally spell Carter from the game.

Chad Williams joined Carter on the first-team All-SWAC squad. The receiver led the conference with 86 catches and 1,294 receiving yards and his 10 touchdown catches ranked second.

Grambling also boasts the conference’s defensive player of the year in defensive tackle Donovan McCray.

N.C. Central’S KEY PLAYERS

Malcolm Bell threw for 2,191 yards and 16 touchdowns and added another 544 yards and nine scores on the ground. Bell led the league in average total offensive yards per game (248.6) and made history, becoming the first N.C. Central player to run for more than 1,000 yards and throw for more than 4,000 yards in a college career.

N.C. Central led the MEAC with 221.3 passing yards a game behind Bell, who garnered first-team All-MEAC honors.

When Bell arrived in Durham, North Carolina, as a freshman, he was redshirted. During his sophomore season in 2013, he started two games. For three seasons, he has been the team’s full-time starter.

Bell will go down as N.C. Central’s second all-time passer and total offense leader behind Earl Harvey. He will leave the program having passed for 6,100 yards, rushed for an additional 1,473 yards and accounted for 61 touchdowns.

“It’s been more than I ever expected,” Bell told the Richmond Freedom Press. “I never thought I’d have this kind of history-book performance.”

In the same interview with the Freedom Press, Bell hinted that he may find himself playing in the Canadian Football League, where famous NFL quarterbacks such as Warren Moon and Joe Theismann developed their games.

LaVontis Smith joined Bell on the first-team All-MEAC squad, and the receiver was second in the MEAC with 646 receiving yards and tied for fifth with five touchdown catches.

As one of only four returners in the FCS with two punt return touchdowns, defensive back Mike Jones could give the Eagles an extra boost in the third phase of the game. Jones also averaged 22 yards per punt return. As a defender, he had two interceptions and three pass breakups.

The Eagles’ offensive line will challenge the Tigers’ McCray with center Carl Jones and lineman Tarrance Wells, who both received first-team All-MEAC recognition. Jones defended his title as the top center in the conference for a second consecutive year with an average grade of 91 percent on blocking assignments and a team-best 65 pancake blocks, while only allowing one sack in 707 snaps his senior year.

On the defensive line, Frederick Henry-Ajudua was also a first-team selection after finishing second in the MEAC with 7.5 sacks, 11.5 tackles for a loss and 33 total tackles.

Fast facts about N.C. Central

  • N.C. Central’s two losses this season came on the road against FBS teams — 49-6 at Duke in Week 1 and 70-21 at unbeaten Western Michigan in Week 2. The Eagles’ last loss to a FCS team came on Oct. 3, 2015, against Bethune-Cookman University, 28-26.
  • The Eagles are seeking their first 10-win season since 2006 when they finished 11-1 under then-head coach Rod Broadway, who left after that season to become the head coach at Grambling.
  • N.C. Central head coach Jerry Mack is not only the MEAC Coach of the Year, but the American Football Coaches Association’s Regional Coach of the Year. Mack is 24-10 in his three seasons as head coach of the Eagles, capturing at least a share of the MEAC title all three years, including this season’s outright crown. His 24 victories are more than any N.C. Central football coach has ever collected in their first three seasons.
  • N.C. Central has had 15 players drafted to the NFL since 1967 with the most recent being defensive back Ryan Smith going in the fourth round last spring to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Fast facts about GRAMBLING

  • Grambling’s lone loss of the season came against FBS opponent University of Arizona in Week 2. The Tigers’ last loss against a FCS team came against Alcorn State in last year’s SWAC championship game.
  • After trailing Alcorn State, 17-0, at halftime of the Dec. 3 SWAC title game, Grambling outscored the Braves, 27-3, in the second half for a 27-20 victory. The win gave the Tigers their first SWAC title since 2011 and their 25th overall. Archrival Southern University has the second-most SWAC crowns with 18.
  • Grambling has won more HBCU national championships (13) than any other school and is seeking its 14th title. The Tigers have one more title than Tennessee State University.
  • Grambling has 95 players selected during the common draft era, the most of any HBCU program. The last Tigers player drafted was defensive end Jason Hatcher, who was a third-round pick by the Dallas Cowboys in 2006.

ESPNU Research contributed to this story.

Rhiannon Walker is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a drinker of Sassy Cow Creamery chocolate milk, an owner of an extensive Disney VHS collection, and she might have a heart attack if Frank Ocean doesn't drop his second album.