NC A&T has won a school-record 10 straight games, clinched at least a share of the MEAC title and wrapped up a bid to the Celebration Bowl, the unofficial football national championship game of Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
And yet, for all the Aggies have already accomplished, at least some of the shine from an already historic season will be lost if they don’t beat arch-rival NC Central on Saturday in the annual Aggie-Eagle Classic.
Kickoff is 1 p.m. in Greensboro with broadcast coverage on ESPN3.
“Here’s the bottom line … we ain’t done yet,” A&T coach Rod Broadway said as he and his team look to complete their school’s first undefeated season since 1943. “We still have a lot of work to do and we still have a lot of goals out there. We’ve got to continue to improve and got to continue to play well.”
The Aggies, at 10-0 and ranked eighth nationally in this week’s FCS poll, are a heavy favorite against a Central team that has lost two straight.
Recent history suggests otherwise.
Coach Jerry Mack’s Eagles have won the last three meetings, with each of those victories denying A&T either an outright MEAC title or a share of the crown.
Last year’s 42-21 result in Durham became doubly painful for the Aggies, because it cost them a second straight Celebration Bowl trip. Central went instead, losing to Grambling 10-9 on a blocked extra point in the final two minutes.
Although the Eagles are already eliminated from postseason contention this time around after its back-to-back defeats to Norfolk State and Bethune-Cookman — the latter of which came in excruciating fashion on a 48-yard Hail Mary as time expired — it’s still in a position to play spoiler again.
“This is kind of our version of the Super Bowl,” Mack said. “For a lot of these guys, it will be the last time they ever put on a pair of shoulder pads, so you want to go out there and have your best performance possible in the last game of the season.”
Especially when the opponent is a hated rival.
“Over the last four years, one thing about this rivalry that I have seen,” Mack said, “is that you’ve got bragging rights for 365 days out of the year. We’re trying to do something similar this year.”
Mack was at a loss to explain his team’s recent dominance in the series, other than the ball has bounced its way more than it has for A&T.
His counterpart Broadway said he’s too busy trying to figure out how to win this year’s matchup to waste time trying to figure out what went wrong in the past.
“There will be a little bit of emphasis put on this since they kicked our butt the last few years and we want to try to get some payback and we want to try playing better than we did last season,” Broadway said. “But we’re going to prepare like we always do.
“I’m not concerned with what they’re doing or how they do things. My concern is with us and how I get our team ready to play.”
A&T (10-0, 7-0 MEAC) comes into the game ranked second nationally in scoring defense, having allowed an average of just 12.5 points per game. On the other side of the ball, its offense — led by former High Point Andres High School teammates Lamar Raynard and Marquell Cartwright — ranks seventh nationally in scoring offense at 37.6 points per game.
The Aggies also boast a turnover margin of plus-16, third best in the country among FCS teams.
Junior quarterback Raynard has already set single-season school records with 25 touchdown passes, 175 completions and 2,698 total yards. Cartwright, also a junior, surpassed the 1,000-yard rushing mark in last week’s win against Savannah State, giving the A&T a 1,000-yard rusher in seven of the last eight seasons.
Central (7-3, 5-2) will counter with a stout defense of its own, one that has allowed an average of just 67.3 yards per game on the ground and ranks second in FCS in third down conversions by holding its opponent to just 24.3 percent. Junior safety Davanta Reynolds leads the MEAC with six interceptions.
Offensively, freshman running back Isaiah Totten is averaging nearly six yards per carry while fellow rookie Chauncey Caldwell has thrown for 1,282 yards and 10 touchdowns while running or five more scores.
“The (MEAC) championship, when we first came here, went through Bethune and South Carolina State,” Broadway said. “It’s changed over the last few years. Now it goes through Durham and Greensboro. That’s where we are.
“We’re the two best teams in the league and have been for the last 4-5 years. It’s a big game for them, it’s a big game for us. We need to go play and play well.”