(STATS) - North Carolina Central and Grambling State just missed out on playing in last season's inaugural Celebration Bowl. They made sure that didn't happen again this year.
The 16th-ranked Tigers take on the No. 20 Eagles at the Georgia Dome on Saturday in a matchup of the Southwestern Athletic Conference and Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champions.
Grambling State won all nine of its conference games last season before being denied an appearance in the Celebration Bowl when it lost 49-21 to Alcorn State in the SWAC title game. The Tigers again went 9-0 in conference play in 2016, but this time rallied from a 17-0 halftime deficit to beat the Braves 27-20 for the SWAC championship Dec. 3.
North Carolina Central shared the MEAC title last season with North Carolina A&T and Bethune-Cookman, but N.C. A&T won the tiebreaker and went on to beat Alcorn State 41-34 in the Celebration Bowl. The Eagles and Aggies met in a winner-take-all season finale last month, with North Carolina Central rolling to a 42-21 victory to claim the MEAC championship.
"We got one more to go," said North Carolina Central's Jerry Mack, who was named MEAC coach of the year and finished sixth in the voting for the STATS FCS Eddie Robinson Award as FCS Coach of the Year. "We got an opportunity to play for potentially a black college national championship. ... So the tradition and the legacy isn't over with yet."
North Carolina Central (9-2) does most of its damage through the air. The Eagles led the MEAC with 221.3 passing yards per game behind Malcolm Bell, who finished second in the league with 2,191 yards, first with 16 passing touchdowns and tied for second with nine rushing scores in being named first-team all-conference.
He was joined on the first team by LaVontis Smith, who was second in the MEAC with 646 receiving yards and tied for fifth with five TD catches.
Grambling State (10-1) also has a star quarterback in DeVante Kincade, who was named the SWAC offensive player of the year. Tackle Donovan McCray was the defensive player of the year and Broderick Fobbs took home coach of the year honors.
Kincade led the SWAC in passing efficiency (173.5), completion percentage (65.4), passing yards (2,870) and touchdown passes (30) while throwing just three interceptions. All-SWAC first-team selection Chad Williams topped the conference in catches (86) and receiving yards (1,294) and was second in TD receptions (10).
The Tigers are also strong on the ground behind Jestin Kelly (808 yards, eight TDs) and all-conference first-team member Martez Carter (782, nine).
Grambling State has won 10 in a row since losing its opener at FBS opponent Arizona, a game in which the Tigers led 21-3 at halftime. North Carolina Central enters on a nine-game winning streak following season-opening road defeats to FBS schools Duke and Western Michigan.
"This is two titans clashing, and two really good coaching staffs and two really good programs that are doing an exceptional job in this college football atmosphere," said Fobbs, who finished ninth in the voting for the STATS FCS Eddie Robinson Award.
"This is huge for us and for FCS football and the fact that there are a lot of institutions that would like to be here. Even other institutions that are playing in the national playoffs. They would like to be in a situation where they are able to play in a game like such."