ATLANTA – As the final 10 seconds ticked off the clock, North Carolina Central football coach Trei Oliver dodged a celebratory Gatorade bath from three of his players.
After the final whistle blew and 0:00 lit up on the scoreboard inside Center Parc Stadium on Saturday night, Oliver and his players made their way to the end zone as the school’s marching band played and grooved to its version of Cameo’s “Talkin’ Out The Side Of Your Neck” in the bleachers.
Below the band, on the field in a huddle, Oliver—who had led his team to its first MEAC/SWAC Challenge victory in school history amid a precarious MEAC landscape—was full of excitement.
“Yessir, yessir, yessir, let’s go,” Oliver told his players as he shook their hands and doled out hugs following N.C. Central's 23-14 season-opening victory against Alcorn State.
Eagles wide receiver Noah Ellison smiled and broke out the popular “Get Griddy” dance.
The celebration was well deserved. The last time N.C. Central graced the gridiron for a game came 644 days ago, at the end of a 4-8 campaign in 2019. The Eagles entered Saturday as 15-point underdogs to Alcorn State, the 2019 SWAC champion and 2021 preseason favorite to win the SWAC West. But Oliver and his players made it clear that N.C. Central was a new team by earning the first victory against Alcorn in school history.
Prior to Saturday's showdown, fans and students from both schools—along with high school students from the Atlanta area, alums from other HBCU institutions and members of the National Pan-Hellenic Council celebrated the epitome of HBCU culture on ESPN's College GameDay.
Fans danced as the bands of both schools, joined by hip hop trio Migos, brought electrifying energy to the Atlanta streets.
The event marked not only the start to the college football season but also the beginning of a journey that starts in Atlanta with the MEAC/SWAC Challenge in August and culminates in December with the Celebration Bowl, the battle between the conference champions of the SWAC and the MEAC.
One local artist, George F. Baker III, depicted the beauty and tradition of both conferences through a majestic mural highlighting both schools and the culture of HBCU sports.
Baker finished the design of the mural on Wednesday and painted it the next day before adding the finishing touches on Saturday, right in the midst of the HBCU culture unfolding on the streets of Atlanta.
"It's nothing like being able to capture the culture and tradition of HBCUs," Baker said. "That was my goal for this mural, to celebrate the culture of all HBCUs."
Derek Horne, the athletic director at Alcorn State, said the big stage not only helps his school but all HBCUs across the country.
"We know we are relevant," Horne told Sports Illustrated. "It shows our relevance that we have a product that can be seen nationally and that we are worth the dollar and the investment... not only in what we do in our athletic programs but that we also shape great men and women.
"We’ve been on GMA, we’ve been on First Take, we’re on GameDay and it really means a lot."
But while Baker, Horne and fans enjoyed what felt like a homecoming experience, Oliver and his players took notice of all of the GameDay crew members—Desmond Howard, Lee Corso, Kirk Herbstreit and a guest picker in Tennessee State coach Eddie George—picking Alcorn State to win the game.
Even the Migos picked the Braves to defeat the Eagles.
However, it was N.C. Central that had the last laugh.
"Aye, tell Lee Corso and them to eat they words," said Eagles wide receiver Daeshawn Stephens after the game. "Tell Migos to eat they words! Tell everybody who chose Alcorn to eat they words, OK?"
Alcorn looked set to take control of the game in the first quarter. The Braves reached the red zone in their first two drives.
After moving the ball down field with ease in their opening drive, Braves quarterback Felix Harper—one of 18 SWAC players to be on the 2021 Black College Football Player of the Year Award Watchlist—zipped a pass to the left sideline to Juan Anthony Jr. that went for a 20-yard touchdown.
On the Braves next possession, Harper's pass to Anthony Jr. fell incomplete on third and goal, setting up a 32-yard field goal that Cristofer Thompson missed wide left. Still, despite the early success of the Alcorn State offense, the Eagles never lost faith.
"It just came down to players and coaches coming together and communicating," said N.C. Central defensive back Manny Smith after the game. "Everybody committed to the changes the coaches made."
Throughout the week, Oliver stressed to his players to keep a level mentality through the ebbs and flows of the game.
"Let's set [the thermostat] at 68 to 70 degrees," Oliver said after the game. "We aren’t going to get too high or too low. When we make a play, we aren’t going to get too excited and control your emotions. When they make a play, they have guys on scholarship, don’t tuck your head. Be levelheaded and control your emotions."
N.C. Central earned its first points on a 6-yard touchdown run by quarterback Davius Richard in the final minutes of the first half to tie the game 7-7 at halftime.
Both teams traded scoring drives in the third quarter, and Alcorn took a 14-13 lead. The Eagles used a heavy dose of running back Jorden Freeman to setup a 28-yard field goal by Adrian Olivo to claim a 16-14 advantage early in the fourth quarter.
The biggest play of the game came on the Braves' next possession. Alcorn faced third-and-28 deep in its own territory, and the Eagles kept the Braves from getting the first down. Instead, they forcing Alcorn to punt to Brandon Codrington, who returned the punt for a 77-yard touchdown to put the Eagles up 23-14.
But even with all of the miscues and missed opportunities, the Braves had one final opportunity when defensive back Keyron Kinsler Jr. picked off Richard.
The Braves started the drive at their own 44, and quarterback Felix Harper completed two passes to move his team to the Eagles' 39. However, an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty cost Alcorn 15 yards and forced them to punt.
"That was a big momentum swing when we got the interception," Harper said after the game. "We have to capitalize on those kind of things... Penalties and errors messed us up... The big times we missed hurt us, and that’s it."
Oliver, although happy about his team's historic win, feels there is still a lot of work to be done.
"We played the defending SWAC champions and had 14 penalties," Oliver said. "They had five. So, there is a whole lot of stuff to work on. We gave up too many yards rushing. All I cared about was getting a win, but we will get this stuff corrected."
N.C. Central made a statement in stifling a Braves offense that averaged nearly 34 points per game while averaging 407 yards of total offense in 2019.
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Conference alignment has changed the landscape of the MEAC. Bethune Cookman and Florida A&M officially began as members of the SWAC on July 1. Before the two southern Florida schools left, Hampton left the MEAC for the Big South Conference in 2018.
North Carolina A&T State—a program that has won three MEAC titles with one as a co-champion with SCSU in the last five years—also became an official member of the Big South on July 1.
The realignment moves left Delaware State, Howard, Morgan State, Norfolk State and South Carolina State in the MEAC with N.C. Central.
With some of the premier teams no longer in the MEAC, Oliver said he and his players have been motivated to prove a point to the SWAC.
Oliver, who has SWAC ties in previous coaching stops as a former defensive coordinator at Southern University and as a former outside linebackers coach, recruiting coordinator and special teams coordinator at Grambling State, did not hold back about the level of football that the MEAC still has to offer.
"Why is there is so much talk about the SWAC and we have owned Atlanta for the last 14 years, I don’t get it," Oliver said. "We play good ball in the MEAC.
"I know we lost A&T, FAMU, and Bethune, but we have won championships since those last two have won. We play good football and will continue to play good football in the MEAC. At least in Durham, North Carolina, we will."
Oliver and the Eagles helped the MEAC move to a 11-4 mark against the SWAC in the interconference game.
"It feels good, but we knew this was coming," Oliver told Bridget Condon of WTVD-TV. "Tell Lee Corso: Not so fast, my friend."
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