ATLANTA — The third annual Celebration Bowl showcases its first two winners.
No. 7 N.C. A&T (11-0) won the first Celebration Bowl in 2015, and No. 12 Grambling (11-1) is the defending champ.
It's the start of college football's bowl season, and the national broadcast on ABC has drawn more than five million viewers so far.
And the matchup of champs from the two NCAA Division I leagues made up exclusively of HBCUs means a black college national championship is at stake.
"I told our staff before the season started, 'We have chance to have our best football team.' And we still have a chance," A&T coach Rod Broadway said. "All we need to do is win one more, and this will be the best team I've had in 15 years as a head coach. I can't say enough about these guys."
Five things to know headed into this game:
1. Lamar Raynard: The MEAC's offensive player of the year, A&T's junior quarterback from High Point has set school records this season with 186 completions for 2,707 yards and 26 touchdowns. He set the single-season record for completion percentage at 64.6 last year, and he comes into the bowl game with a 65.3 percentage. The Aggies are a remarkable 25-0 in games Raynard has started since his freshman season.
2. Devante Kincade: Grambling's 6-1 senior dual-threat quarterback is the SWAC's offensive player of the year for the second season in a row after passing for 2,680 yards, 21 touchdowns and just three interceptions, while rushing for 315 yards and six touchdowns. "He's really good, and really dangerous when he breaks the pocket," Broadway said. "He can make plays with his arm. You don't see that a lot. Usually, you're really good at one or the other, but this kid is really dangerous when he breaks the pocket, and he can also throw."
3. Jeremy Taylor: Keep an eye on No. 48, the heart and soul of an A&T defense ranked No. 4 out of 123 FCS teams in total defense. A hybrid linebacker and safety, Taylor has a nose for the football and terrific closing speed. He leads the Aggies with 65 tackles (46 solos) and is tied with All-American cornerback Mac McCain for the team lead with five interceptions and eight pass break-ups. The senior has also forced three fumbles and made 7 1/2 tackles for loss.
4. Running backs: A&T junior Marquell Cartwright is a power runner who rushed for a MEAC-high 1,080 yards and 13 touchdowns, averaging 4.8 yards per carry. He's a between-the-tackles back who doesn't shy away from contact. Grambling tailback Martez Carter, the MVP of last year's Celebration Bowl, is a more elusive, shifty runner who rushed for 842 yards (5.2 per carry) and 10 scores. "The difference in that football team," Broadway said, "and the biggest compliment I can give, they have a ballplayer at running back. That's all you need to know. That sucker can play. He can hit home runs, and he can get his shoulders square and get three or four yards."
Good morning #football fans! Here are some moments from last night's Class of 2018 Champions Circle. There was a lot of outstanding talent in the building last night! #MEAC #SWAC pic.twitter.com/MxY5bYYiBE— Celebration Bowl (@CelebrationBowl) December 15, 2017
5. Special teams: By now, all of FCS knows about A&T senior punt returner Khris Gardin, who is second all-time with 1,576 career return yards, 92 short of the record held by Hampton's Marquay McDaniel. Gardin averages 14.9 yards per punt return in his career and has scored five touchdowns. He's a difference-maker. So, too, is Grambling kicker Marc Orozco, who leads the Tigers in scoring with 100 points. Orozco is 18-for-22 on field-goal attempts, including 14-for-16 on kicks between 30 and 49 yards. He's 46-for-47 on PATs.
This article is written by Jeff Mills from News & Record, Greensboro, N.C. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.