The 2022 HBCU football season comes to an end Saturday in Atlanta’s Mercedes Benz Stadium. Cricket Celebration Bowl VII will match undefeated SWAC champion Jackson State against MEAC champion North Carolina Central.
The 12-0 JSU Tigers and third-year head coach Deion “Coach Prime” Sanders are returning to the season-ender. They won their second straight SWAC championship two weeks ago, 43-24 over Southern. The 9-2 Eagles of NC Central are returning to the game for the first time since 2016. It’s their first trip under third-year head coach Trei Oliver. NCCU finished 4-1 in the MEAC to take this year’s title.
The winner will be the 2022 HBCU football national champion.
The game was sold out two weeks ago. Game officials then announced 1,000 Standing Room Only tickets were put on sale. The game is being carried live at 12 noon Saturday on ABC.
Last year’s game drew a Celebration Bowl-record sellout of 48,653 fans.
Last time in the Celebration Bowl
In their previous Celebration Bowl appearances both JSU and NCCU lost.
In last year’s game, Sanders and the 11-1, heavily-favored Tigers were upset 31-10 by 7-5 MEAC champion South Carolina State. The Bulldog defense chased and harassed JSU freshman quarterback Shedeur Sanders all day. They forced him into three turnovers – two interceptions and a fumble. SCSU QB Corey Fields Jr. threw a career-high four TD passes, three to wideout Shaquan Davis in the win. It was a stunning end to the 2021 season.
Back in 2016, the Eagles suffered the only MEAC loss in six Celebration Bowls, 10-9 to Grambling State. In that tight low-scoring game, NCCU scored on a touchdown pass with just over two minutes to go. But the Eagles were penalized when the player who scored took off his helmet in the field of play. The 15-yard penalty resulted in the Eagles trying to tie the game on a 40-yard point-after-touchdown kick that was blocked.
Plenty on the HBCU football table
Jackson State will come in looking to erase the bad taste from last year’s season-ending upset loss. The Tigers will also be looking to send their coach out with a win.
The mercurial and flamboyant Sanders, the NFL Hall of Famer who has championed the HBCU cause since taking over at Jackson State in September 2020, announced after the victory over Southern two weeks ago that he was leaving after this game to take the head coaching job at Colorado.
Oliver and his troops would surely like to add to the MEAC’s 5-1 record in the game and erase the heart-breaking memory of their previous Celebration Bowl loss.
Those developments have only added intrigue to the matchup of champions of the two HBCU FCS conferences.
HBCU football: The teams’ similarities
Both teams topped their conferences in most statistical categories and have comparable numbers.
Both scored 38 points per game. Jackson State produced 447.8 yards of total offense while NCCU put up 442.0 ypg. JSU gave up 233.3 yards and 11.3 points while NCCU surrendered 326.1 yards and 20.4 points per game.
JSU, with sophomore Shedeur Sanders (283.6 yards per game, 36 TDs) at the controls, has the better passing numbers. NCCU counters with junior QB Davius Richard who has been effective both as a passer (2,486 yards, 24 TDs) and rusher (691 yards, 13 TDs). Both were their respective league’s offensive MVPs.
JSU is loaded with receivers. Senior Dallas Daniels (60 rec., 666 yds., 6 TDs) and grad senior Shane Hooks (59 rec., 705 yds., 10 TDs) lead the way. NCCU’s top duo includes redshirt senior E. J. Hicks (30 rec., 529 yds., 7 TDs) and sophomore Devin Smith (35 rec., 495 yds., 6 TDs).
The teams have durable, capable and productive runners in JSU’s Sy’Veon Wilkerson (1,099 yards, 9 TDs) and NCCU’s Latrell Collier (881 yards, 9 TDs).
The teams’ differences
One of the reasons given for the MEAC’s 5-1 advantage over the SWAC in Celebration Bowls has been how much time the teams have to prepare for their meeting.
The MEAC champion has a month to rest and prepare for the big game after its regular season ends. The SWAC season extends another two weeks before its champion is decided. That gives its champion only two weeks to prepare.
SC State put constant pressure on Shedeur Sanders last year forcing him to his worst outing of the season (16 of 36, 175 yards, 1 TD, 2 ints.). Sanders had perhaps been worse, only 8 of 16 for 85 yards, a TD and an interception two weeks earlier in the 27-10 SWAC title game win over Prairie View A&M.
Expect NCCU coach Oliver to take some cues from JSU’s 43-24 win over Southern two weeks ago. In that game, JSU forced three turnovers and jumped out to a 26-0 first quarter lead but was outscored 24-17 by Southern for the rest of the game.
Third-string Southern QB Glendon McDaniel came off the bench for the Jags and riddled the JSU defense for 162 rushing yards and two TDs while passing for 220 yards and another score. JSU was giving up just 210 yards and 10 points per game prior to that contest.
Richard has perhaps better running and passing skills than McDaniel and could give JSU fits. Don’t count out the Eagles. If they avoid turning the ball over on offense and defensively put pressure on and force Sanders into making mistakes, they have a chance.
JSU will once again come in heavily favored.