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HBCU Football

Who wins bragging rights in Aggie-Eagle Classic?

MEAC title and trip to the Celebration Bowl also at stake for N.C. A&T and N.C. Central

No one around North Carolina Central University or North Carolina A&T State University is trying to poke the bear this week, or spit into the wind, or tug on Superman’s cape.

With one of the biggest football’s games in each team’s history to be played on Saturday in Durham, North Carolina, no trash talk is being uttered in Aggieland or in Eagleville — not among the combatants anyway.

Players and coaches are mainly being nice and extra complimentary toward each other this week as North Carolina’s two biggest schools among historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) prepare to square off in a game that can bring unprecedented accolades for the winner.

Kickoff is 2 p.m. Saturday at O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium on the N.C. Central campus, in a game to be broadcast live on ESPN3/WatchESPN app. A tape delay telecast will be on ESPNU. Officially, it’s N.C. A&T at N.C. Central, but for fans, it’s another Aggie-Eagle Classic — the former name just won’t die — and the stakes have never been higher.

“It’s rivalry week,” N.C A&T’s record-setting running back Tarik Cohen said. “It’s also for a championship. The stakes can’t get any bigger.”

The winner becomes outright champion of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC), earns a berth in the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl and would move ahead of the other in contention for the Black College National Championship.

The Celebration Bowl, which pits the MEAC champion against the champion from the Southwestern Athletic Conference on Dec. 17 in Atlanta, would then settle the black college national championship.

Saturday’s contest between the two schools — N.C. A&T (9-1, 7-0 MEAC) in Greensboro and N.C. Central (8-2, 7-0 MEAC) in Durham, about 54 miles apart along Interstate 40 — has always raised tensions. You get the normal longtime rivalries among players from each side, some of whom have known each other since they first put on pads.

“A lot of these guys, they know one another, from high school football and little league football and just some of them stay in the Raleigh-Durham area,” said N.C. Central coach Jerry Mack.

Add to that, the friends and family members with divided/shared loyalties trash-talk whenever Aggies and Eagles get together. Building up to this game for yearlong bragging rights, both coaches have warned their players to not get caught up in the game-week emotions.

“We talk to the team mainly about blocking out everything,” said Mack, whose team has beaten the Aggies in the last two contests. Each of the past two Eagles’ victories have allowed N.C. Central to grab a share of the MEAC title — a three-way tie in 2015 and a five-way tie in 2014 — along with N.C. A&T. “We want to be even-keel. We don’t want to be too high, and we don’t want to be too low.

“We’re trying to put a great game plan together to beat North Carolina A&T,” Mack continued. “The players understand the emotion and the intensity it’s going to take to win a game of this magnitude.”

Aggies coach Rod Broadway preached a similar message.

“Our focus needs to be on playing well — not on outside stuff,” he said.

On Tuesday, Mack lauded the Aggies’ strong defensive line, which is led by MEAC Defensive Player of the Year candidate, senior Marquis Ragland.

“They have a great defensive line,” Mack said. “Our offensive line will have to do a good job. It’s a battle in the trenches – our offensive line and their defensive line.”

Broadway didn’t take the bait when asked if there was any particular Eagles player he was concerned about.

“All of them, the whole team,” he said. “They are a well-coached football team all around. Their strength is probably their offensive line.”

Any list of players most fans’ eyes will be glued to on Saturday would start with Cohen, the senior N.C. A&T running back who became the MEAC’s all-time leading rusher this season.

“With the ability Tarik has, he has the ability to flip the field with just a handoff,” Mack said. “We have to make sure guys bring him down when they have an opportunity to.”

N.C. Central’s talented group is led by dual-threat quarterback Malcolm Bell, the reigning MEAC Co-Offensive Player of the Week, who engineered a 30-21 victory over Howard University on Nov. 12, a game in which he contributed 345 yards total offense and accounted for three touchdowns.

Bell leads the MEAC in total offense with 242.0 yards per game, has thrown a MEAC-best 15 touchdown passes, while rushing for seven more. He is the school’s all-time leading passer and is second in school history in total offense.

Bell couldn’t be more ready for Saturday’s game, saying he was motivated for this season by watching N.C. A&T play in the 2015 Celebration Bowl, a right the Aggies earned via a tiebreaker.

“We just counted the days down,” Bell said. “Up to this point, the ending goal was to reach the Celebration Bowl, and here we are just one game away.”

Mack was sharing no secrets — if he has any — about how he has been able to come out on top of the Aggies the past two seasons.

“There has been no one thing,” he said. “We were great on offense, defense and special teams. Our kicking game … It’s been a total team effort to come up with a win.”

Broadway, understandably, does not want to dwell on the past contests.

“Last year is last year,” he said. “Let’s move forward. We’re trying to move forward and prepare for the game this week.

“This is what college football is all about,” he said. “You play the last game of the season for a chance to win a championship.”

But the loser this weekend, whether it’s Broadway or Mack, might want to delay pulling out the fishing pole and tackle box just a little bit longer.

MEAC commissioner Dennis Thomas believes the loser deserves a shot at the Football Championship Series (FCS) playoffs, which a MEAC team has not played in since 1999, when both N.C. A&T and Florida A&M University were participants.

An NCAA committee selects the 24-team field, and a MEAC representative would have to earn an at-large selection because the MEAC champion forfeits its automatic bid to play in the nationally televised and more lucrative Celebration Bowl.

In the most recent polls of FCS teams, N.C. A&T is ranked No. 9 and N.C. Central is No. 20. In the Stats FCS Top 25 polls, N.C. A&T is No. 9 and N.C. Central is No. 24.

N.C. Central’s ranking at No. 25 on Nov. 7 was its first national ranking since moving back up to Division I in 2011.

“Both teams have stated their strong consideration by their achievement, their record, this year,” Thomas said. “I think the loser of that game [the Aggie-Eagle Classic] stands a strong chance, and I would be shocked and disappointed if the loser of the A&T-Central game were not selected.”

David R. Squires is a writer, editor and digital journalist who has worked for the New York Times, Detroit Free Press, Cleveland Plain Dealer and St. Petersburg Times. He's also a former editor-in-chief of BlackVoices.com and BVQ magazine, a former Black Enterprise writer and editor and NUTribemagazine.com managing editor.