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Road to the Celebration Bowl

North Carolina A&T wants some r-e-s-p-e-c-t, while Grambling is trying to add to its rich history at the Celebration Bowl

Either way, Saturday’s winner will be a repeat champion at this HBCU football title game

ATLANTA — This may very well be the start of a beautiful rivalry between North Carolina A&T and Grambling State University’s football teams.

Both the Tigers and Aggies represent the first two winners of ESPN’s Celebration Bowl and two of the best football programs in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS).

Grambling State coach Broderick Fobbs said he wouldn’t necessarily call it a rivalry in its current state, but, boy, do these two teams have the potential for it moving forward.

When asked about the intangibles for both teams, Fobbs explained that these two teams are essentially looking at themselves in the mirrors.

Both teams are on 11-game winning streaks, which are the second longest in the FCS right now. Grambling and N.C. A&T don’t give up the ball much, as both have only turned it over 10 times, which is tied for the third fewest in the FCS.

Neither team’s quarterback has lost to another historically black college or university (HBCU) — DeVante Kincade has 20 victories, while Lamar Raynard is 25-0 when he’s played. Something has to give on Saturday.

Raynard is the fourth straight Aggie to win the Mid-Eastern Athletic Player of the Year honor, while Grambling swept the Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year awards in the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) with Kincade and linebacker De’Arius Christman.

So what’s on the line for both of these teams come Saturday at noon?

It may feel weird to read this about a team that is currently undefeated and may very well finish as the first Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) team with a perfect season, but N.C. A&T wants respect. The team’s coach Rod Broadway just finished fifth in FCS Stats national coach of the year recognition; a coach whose team didn’t even make the playoffs was chosen as No. 1.

Since the team has arrived in Atlanta, the questions about the lore and prestige of Grambling’s football history have been nonstop, as if currently A&T has been one of the most dominant programs in the last five years.

“Our opponent just kind of thinks it’s going to be a cakewalk,” said first-team All-MEAC N.C. A&T offensive lineman Brandon Parker, “so clearly, we have some more respect to get.”

The players made it clear they don’t want to be thought of as Grambling State lite, and Broadway said it more plainly.

“We’re up-and-coming,” he said. “We’re becoming a name brand in college football now. We’re not taking a back seat to anybody anymore, ever.”

Grambling is only four years removed from a team protest over substandard facilities, equipment and treatment and is trying to make even clearer that the program is back on track to its former glory.

The team attempts to do this as two of its best offensive players, Kincade and Martez Carter, missed the press conference Friday to graduate. Once the game is concluded, Grambling State will have to find a way to continue the momentum it has created with newcomers at quarterback and running back.

As Fobbs said during the news conference, the team leans heavily on a few very talented seniors right now, but most of the team is very young, and these past two years of experience have been invaluable. While the team ran into some bumps on the road getting to Atlanta, at this point, it’s ready to be the first Celebration Bowl champion to repeat and be considered the champion of HBCU football.

In a new Mercedes-Benz Stadium and with the first bowl game to be played in the venue, soak in this game, because based on the way these two teams talk about one another, this could be the first of many battles between these hallowed programs.

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.