MEAC-SWAC Challenge an appetizer for Celebration Bowl
The annual opening-week MEAC-SWAC Challenge aside, the SWAC is relishing the opportunity to ultimately put to bed the notion that the MEAC is the superior conference.
But Sunday's matchup is simply an appetizer for bigger things between the leagues.
Earlier this year, the conferences aligned to create the inaugural Celebration Bowl, which will pit champions of both leagues Dec. 19 in Atlanta in a game that will be televised on ABC. The bowl game has created a new incentive for schools from both leagues.
"I think it's a tremendous opportunity for everybody in the conference, it's tremendous for our league," Alcorn State coach Jay Hopson said. "I think that's something we've kind of separated from a lot of other FCS conferences, and can also sell not only a conference championship but also a bowl game. The SWAC and the MEAC are the only FCS conferences that can say that."
This is the third incarnation of a bowl between these leagues - dubbed the unofficial "black college championship." The Pelican Bowl took place in the 1970s and the Heritage Bowl in the 1990s. Both eventually fizzled, with championship teams opting out of the Heritage Bowl and choosing to take part in the FCS playoffs instead.
That will no longer be the case since a six-year deal compels the champions to meet in Atlanta. It was a no-brainer to participate for the SWAC, which did not have an automatic berth into the FCS playoffs anyway. The SWAC now gets a chance to send its best against the best from the MEAC for a measuring stick of which conference is better.
Sunday's game - featuring a MEAC powerhouse against a lesser SWAC team - is one reason why coaches are so excited about the new bowl - the latter matchup is guaranteed to be strength vs. strength.
"Basically when you have the Celebration Bowl, you have the two best teams in the conference playing," said Hopson, whose defending champions are among the favorites to reach Atlanta. "You have MEAC-SWAC Challenge games, but you might have a conference champion MEAC team in against a team in a particular year that might not be a conference champion SWAC team."
The bowl game provides much-needed exposure for SWAC schools that are forced to make do annually with college football's worst budgets. Arkansas Pine Bluff coach Monte Coleman - the former Washington Redskins linebacker - noted that the trip to Orlando will mark the first time on a plane for many of his players.
"We work so hard to put our teams on the field," Grambling State coach Broderick Fobbs said. "A lot of folks don't realize what this conference goes through."
The SWAC lost two of three against the MEAC a year ago. Alabama A&M was crushed 47-13 by North Carolina A&T in last year's Challenge before Grambling was humbled 36-23 by Bethune-Cookman. Grambling and Bethune-Cookman will meet again next weekend.
The conference took another hit this offseason when the television schedule came out and Alcorn State and Jackson State – two of the SWAC's flagship programs – only had a combined two appearances due to things not working out within the windows provided by ESPN.
"We always try to get our high-profile (teams) and our teams that we think are going to very good on, but this year it was just an anomaly, we just weren't able to do that," commissioner Duer Sharp admitted.
Still, there are two huge television opportunities available to all the schools – the Dec. 5 SWAC championship game and the much-anticipated Celebration Bowl two weeks later.
"I think it gives this conference a boost, both conferences I might add, so it's a great thing, it's something for all of our programs in the SWAC conference to look forward to," Fobbs said.