December 15, 2015

Alcorn State began the season in Atlanta with a 66-point loss but will return to the city in far different fashion.

North Carolina A&T is focused on turning around some offensive woes from November.

The champions of the Southwestern Athletic Conference and Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference will meet in the inaugural Celebration Bowl on Saturday at the Georgia Dome.

This game is being dubbed the unofficial "black college championship" and is the third incarnation of a bowl between these leagues after 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 and choosing to take part in the FCS playoffs instead.

A six-year agreement is in place for this bowl in Atlanta with numerous parties and events leading up to a game that features talented running backs in Alcorn State's Darryan Ragsdale and North Carolina A&T's Tarik Cohen.

Ragsdale rushed for a SWAC championship game-record 188 yards on 15 carries in a 49-21 rout of Grambling State on Dec. 5. The Braves avenged a 35-34 overtime loss to the Tigers on Oct. 17.

''We have a good team,'' Ragsdale said. ''I knew coming into this game we were all on the same page and we knew everyone had one mindset. We just accomplished that.''

Ragsdale has rushed for at least 100 yards in four straight games and has 1,144.

Cohen, who has set a school record with 3,736 career rushing yards, was named the MEAC offensive player of the year the last two seasons. He has 1,248 this year, with seven 100-yard efforts in his last eight games.

The Aggies finished in a three-way tie atop the conference after losing their finale, 21-16 to North Carolina Central on Nov. 21. They won the bowl tiebreaker based on the USA TODAY Sagarin ratings.

"That's big," coach Ron Broadway told the school's official website. "That's why we do this, to have an opportunity to play, and to have an opportunity to go to the bowl game."

North Carolina A&T had an eight-game win streak snapped with the defeat. Of more concern is that its offense only produced five touchdowns in three games in November.

"We haven't been able to generate a whole lot of offense in the last weeks, so we've got to try to figure out a way to get this thing going a little bit better than we're going right now," Broadway said.

Both teams have had quarterback issues, with the Aggies' lack of production coinciding with Kwashaun Quick's Achilles injury Oct. 31. He has seen limited action since but could be ready to take over with Kylil Carter the other option.

Lenorris Footman has started the last five games for Alcorn State, throwing for eight scores in that span since John Gibbs Jr. was lost to a leg injury.

The Braves survived Gibbs' loss to become the first team since 2002 to repeat as SWAC champions.

''These are great moments when you're able to win championships,'' coach Jay Hopson said. ''I'm just proud and blessed to be a part of this journey and to be around these young men."

The Aggies' quarterbacks will have to be wary of Alcorn State defensive back Warren Gatewood, who had three interceptions in the title game including one for a 24-yard TD.

''In reference to the picks I just was a play on the ball and I was blessed enough to make them,'' Gatewood said. ''I have to give it to my whole defense, to the defensive line to the linebackers.''

Alcorn State took the last meeting, 16-13 on Sept. 11, 2004.

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