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Road to the Celebration Bowl

HBCU football is back, including MEAC/SWAC Challenge this weekend

MEAC and SWAC will have 16 games broadcast across the network

As the last few hot days of summer give way to autumn breezes, bands are putting the final touches on their routines to the latest popular songs and students are assembling back on campuses. It’s clear that it’s time we turn our attention to a new football season.

Last year, the best historically black college and university (HBCU) football team in the land was the North Carolina A&T Aggies, who defeated the Grambling State Tigers in Atlanta at the Celebration Bowl.

But we all know in sports, a team is only as good as what it’s done lately. So new football season, who dis?

Both the Aggies and Tigers once again have to reload, hoping to punch their respective tickets to Atlanta. For this season preview, we’re looking at who will challenge the reigning Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) and Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) champions, along with top storylines to watch for.

The season ended with North Carolina A&T lifting the trophy in victory, and the 2018 slate begins Saturday with the Aggies taking on Jacksonville State in the FCS Kickoff Classic in Montgomery, Alabama (ESPN+), and Prairie View A&M playing against Rice in Houston (ESPN Watch Now). Both games are at 7 p.m.

N.C. A&T is led by quarterback Lamar Raynard, one of the best quarterbacks in the FCS. He threw for 2,932 yards with 27 touchdowns and just seven interceptions last season. He’s been named to the Walter Payton Award watch list as one of the top Division I-AA athletes.

Both teams also open with new head coaches this season. The Aggies open under first-year head coach Sam Washington after the legendary Rod Broadway’s retirement after N.C. A&T’s undefeated 12-0 season in 2017. Prairie View’s Eric Dooley took over after coming from Grambling State, where he was offensive coordinator, replacing Willie Simmons, now head coach at Florida A&M.

As you can see, there’s a ton of turnover from last season, including Hampton’s inaugural season in the Big South after its surprise announcement before the Pirates played rival Howard. Tennessee State, which defeated its first FBS team, appears poised for a strong year in the Ohio Valley Conference. The Tigers will face Hampton in the early stretch of the season.

The Alcorn State Braves’ top player is running back P.J. Simmons, one of the SWAC’s most exciting running backs. Last season, he had 80 carries for 687 yards and seven touchdowns, averaging 8.6 yards a carry. He, too, is on the Walter Payton Award watch list.

As is always the case, new stars will be born on the gridiron and some who made their mark last season return this year to cash in on the momentum they built up. These will be the games this season where those players will have to step up.

MEAC/SWAC Challenge: Prairie View A&M vs. North Carolina Central

Noon EDT, Sept. 2, ESPN2, Georgia State Stadium

What we have here is a matchup of two teams that both finished fourth in their respective conferences. The Panthers closed out the season building up steam with a three-game winning streak, while the North Carolina Central Eagles stumbled to close out the year with back-to-back losses. Again, it’s a new year, and both teams come into the game with a solid core looking to kick off their respective seasons with an exciting win in front of a national audience.

Alcorn State AT Southern

7 p.m., Sept. 29

The Alcorn State Braves are top of their class in the SWAC East and runner-up to Grambling in the SWAC championship. The Jaguars, by contrast, not only finished second in the West to the Tigers but also lost pretty handily to Alcorn State when they visited last season. Another late September contest between these two in the comfy confines of A.W. Mumford Stadium? Another display of offensive prowess very well could be in store.

Howard at North Carolina Central

2 p.m., Oct. 6

This was one heck of a defensive game last season. The Eagles traveled to the nation’s capital and held the Bison, who had scored at least 21 points in their four previous games, to a single touchdown. It wasn’t pretty, but there were several moments when both teams missed opportunities to open it up. Best believe Howard is looking for revenge and the Eagles are excited to temper the upstart Bison’s excitement.

Hampton at Mississippi Valley State

2 p.m., Nov. 10

This will be Hampton’s first game against a SWAC opponent since its decision to move into the Big South Conference at the end of last season. The Delta Devils feature two of the top 10 players going into this year, and Hampton was middle of the pack last season, but it could make for an interesting meeting.

North Carolina A&T at North Carolina Central

2 p.m., Nov. 17

Well, this is just delectable. The rivalry that just keeps on giving might very well provide us with the MEAC champion, if Bethune-Cookman or Howard don’t play dark horse. Last season, the Aggies defended their home turf and beat the Eagles by two touchdowns. Before that, NCCU hadn’t lost this rivalry game since 2013. Between these two teams, they have four of the top 10 players in HBCU football, with three playing for N.C. A&T and one for the Eagles. Get your popcorn ready.

Bayou Classic: Southern vs. Grambling

5 p.m. EST, Nov. 24, Mercedes-Benz Dome

Is there anything better than gathering with your family for the Thanksgiving holiday in New Orleans, then turning around to root for or against those same folks as your alma maters go head to head? Did I mention that these two foes often see each other in the season’s very last game to help decide who will represent the conference in the championship? Then, there’s the inevitable argument about whose band came harder. How could anyone not enjoy the high-stakes nature of this game?

ESPN’s HBCU TV schedule

Date Network Matchup
9/15 ESPN3/ESPNU (tape delay) N.C. Central at South Carolina State
9/22 ESPN3/ESPNU (tape delay) Howard vs. Bethune-Cookman from Lucas Oil Stadium
9/22 ESPN3 Exclusive Alabama State vs. Grambling
9/27 ESPNU South Carolina State at North Carolina A&T
9/29 ESPN3/ESPNU (tape delay) Alcorn State at Southern
10/20 ESPN3/ESPNU (tape delay) Grambling at Alcorn State
10/27 ESPN3/ESPNU (tape delay) Alabama State at Alabama A&M
11/3 ESPN3 Exclusive Prairie View A&M at Jackson State
11/3 ESPN3/ESPNU (tape delay) MEAC “wildcard” game
11/8 ESPNU North Carolina Central at Bethune-Cookman
11/10 ESPN3 Exclusive Jackson State at Alabama State
11/17 ESPN3/ESPNU (tape delay) MEAC “wildcard” game
11/17 ESPN Classic/ESPN3 Florida Classic: Florida A&M vs. Bethune-Cookman
12/1 ESPNU SWAC championship, Birmingham, Alabama
12/15 ABC Celebration Bowl, Atlanta

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.