by Donal Ware
“I don’t believe what I just saw!”
Those were the now very famous words exclaimed by Jack Buck in describing an injured Kirk Gibson’s dramatic Game 1 World Series walkoff homerun for the Dodgers against the A’s in 1988.
After witnessing what I saw at O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium in Durham on Saturday, I feel the same way.
The North Carolina Central Eagles dismantled the North Carolina A&T Aggies 42-21 to win the MEAC title outright. It was the first outright championship in the MEAC since 2012 and the game served as the first MEAC championship “game” since 2000.
Aggies fans were certainly stunned. Most of us in the press box were in disbelief, not necessarily because NCCU won, but how they won.
But the thing is, it was of no surprise to NCCU.
See, the Eagles were tired of hearing about the Aggies.
After all, the Eagles had beaten the Aggies the previous two years, when all A&T had to do was win the games to be MEAC champions outright.
And Saturday’s game wasn’t dramatic like the previous two years had been. This was a beat down by NCCU. The Aggies made it a little more respectable by scoring touchdowns with 9:07 remaining in the fourth quarter to pull to within 35-14 and a touchdown with :04 seconds remaining to pull within 42-21.
Things are clear for the Eagles. They are MEAC champions for the first time since 1973. They are going to the second Celebration Bowl in Atlanta in a month to take on the SWAC champion (to be determined by the winner of the SWAC championship game on December 11). They have a chance at the HBCU national championship.
What is even more clear is that they have won perhaps the most important game of this big time rivalry, this the 88th meeting, that dates back to 1924. They had been tired of hearing about their arch-rivals and how they were defending HBCU national champions, how they were getting all of the publicity, how they were the team playing on national television for five-straight weeks this year.
Now, all of the attention A&T was receiving was warranted. It rebounded from the loss to NCCU last year and went on to defeat Alcorn State in the Celebration Bowl which led to them being voted national champions. The Aggies had dynamic running back Tarik Cohen, who became the all-time leading rusher in MEAC history earlier in the season.
The Eagles felt disrespected.
Why weren’t they receiving all the hype? THEY had twice beaten A&T who was getting all of the publicity. Now, they have put themselves in position to be celebrated like A&T has been for almost the last 365 days.
And what does this now mean for A&T with its 9-2 record moving forward? Well, it could mean a berth in the FCS Playoffs (selections begin Sunday at 10 a.m.).
Prior to the game, even a loss for the Aggies meant a probable playoff berth. 9-2 record. No. 9 national ranking in the coaches FCS poll. Win over FBS Kent State. Only losses coming to FBS Tulsa and now top 25 NCCU.
But one game can make all the difference.
This was a bad loss for the Aggies. And the one thing that has helped propel the Aggies to national prominence, which has endeared the Aggies to being talked about beyond the HBCU realm, is the very thing that could hurt them with the selection committee.
The game was nationally televised.
Everybody saw how the Eagles dominated the Aggies. They bottled up superstar Cohen to the tune of just 83 yards on 23 carries, his two-yard touchdown run coming with :04 remaining. Starting quarterback Lamar Raynard is out with injury and was probably so moving forward.
All of these things will weigh in the committee’s decision moving forward.
Do the Aggies deserve a playoff berth?
But the way the Eagles beat the Aggies has given the committee a reason to say no.
When the MEAC gave up its automatic bid last year to play in the Celebration Bowl, it essentially scoffed at the notion of the playoffs.
The committee remembered that last year when it left a 9-2 Bethune-Cookman team out and to some degree an 8-3 Eagle team out. Plus the conference’s third from the bottom power ranking in FCS won’t carry favor with the committee.
This one game in this heated rivalry that dates back 92 years means things are looking up for the Eagles and are uncertain for the Aggies.