Big stage awaits: NC Central prepares to face Jackson State in the Celebration Bowl
Smackdab in the middle of Durham, O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium is where North Carolina Central University’s football team has played most of its games this season. It’s a humble and old venue, built in 1975 with the capacity to seat about 10,000 fans. Most of the bleachers don’t have backs and stadium lights hang from tall wooden poles over the field.
For the Eagles, the conditions are just right. They’re on a six-game home winning-streak that dates back to last season, outscoring opponents by an average margin of about 47-19 over that stretch.
And now, NC Central is about to play on a stage most of its players have never been on; an environment fit for a title bout.
The Eagles won the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference this season, which means they claimed its bid to the Celebration Bowl — a game which bills itself, and is widely considered by many, to be the National Championship for Division I football played by Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The game is set for a noon kickoff on Saturday in Atlanta, Georgia.
“The preparation has definitely been different. It’s a fine line between trying to get these guys in game-shape and not burning them out,” NC Central coach Trei Oliver said. “But I think our legs are fresh. We’re excited. The guys are chomping at the bit, ready to get down to Atlanta.”
NC Central will face off against the champions of the Southwestern Athletic Conference, Jackson State. Even less than-casual college football fans might be familiar with the Tigers, because for the past three years they’ve been coached by the magnetic and flamboyant Pro Football Hall of Fame cornerback, Deion Sanders.
Earlier this month, “Coach Prime” was hired away from Jackson State to Colorado, but he says he plans to guide the Tigers in the Celebration Bowl. His son, Shadeur, is the team’s quarterback.
“They’re a pretty good offense, but they are who they put on tape,” NC Central linebacker Jaki Brevard said. “We trust ourselves and how we prepare.”
This will be the fourth meeting ever between NC Central and Jackson State, and the Eagles are winless in the series.
“They're talented. They're talented all across the board at every position. They're big and athletic,” Oliver said of Jackson State. “But schematically, I think we match up. I don’t think they’ve seen an offense like ours all year.”
The Celebration Bowl is played in the spaceship-like Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It opened in 2017 with a construction price tag of $1.6 billion and seats up to 75,000 fans.
Perhaps more importantly, the game will be broadcast on national linear television, carried by ABC. Most of the football games played by HBCUs are relegated to subscription streaming services, like ESPN+.
NC Central did play one other national TV game this season, facing off against Morgan State on ESPN2 on Oct. 13, a 59-20 win for the Eagles. And NC Central also played in an NFL stadium earlier this year, topping rival North Carolina A&T in the Duke’s Mayo Classic, 28-13, in Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium. So, perhaps the atmosphere won’t be totally unfamiliar to the Eagles. Since 2000, NC Central is 6-2 in NFL stadiums.
“We’re very confident,” junior offensive lineman Corey Bullock said. “Coach put a great gameplan in for us this weekend… It’s about us. We do everything right, it’s going to be hard to beat us.”
Because of where the Celebration Bowl falls on the college football calendar, a lot of eyes will be on it. Aside from a few lower-tier bowl games featuring unranked teams, this is the most meaningful game happening this weekend.
This isn’t a stage that NC Central plays on often, but it is one that the program has constantly been striving for. Both the MEAC and the SWAC abstain from the Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs to give their teams a chance to play in this game. The FCS is one rung down from the FBS, which teams like Duke, Clemson and Alabama play in.
“It’s a lot, not just for North Carolina Central, but for HBCU football,” Bullock said. “A lot of people will be watching it. For the school, it’s big. The platform for the school gives us more attention.”
The Eagles last played in the Celebration Bowl in 2016, the last year it was held in the now-demolished Georgia Dome. NC Central lost 10-9 to Grambling State in a brutal, heartbreaking way. After a miraculous late touchdown pass, an Eagles wideout was flagged for excessive celebration. That pushed back what would’ve been the game-tying extra point kick, which was blocked.
This time around, the Eagles are hoping to score a whole lot more than nine points. NC Central enters this game averaging 38.4 points per game, the sixth-best scoring offense in the FCS.
NC Central is also armed with a strong offensive line, one that NCAA.com called “the best in HBCU football.” The Eagles have three All-MEAC selections in the trenches, including Bullock, who was named the best offensive guard in FCS by NCAA.com. He’s helped pave the way for an offensive attack orchestrated by dual-threat quarterback Davius Richard, the 2022 MEAC Offensive Player of the Year.
A 6-foot-3 junior, Richard broke NC Central’s program record for total offensive yards with 3,177 this season. He’s fifth in the nation in touchdowns scored this season, with 24 scores through the air and 13 on the ground.
“We have some really good players over there on the offensive side of the ball. I think our quarterback does a really good job of taking what the defenses give him,” Oliver said. “Matt Leone, our offensive coordinator, he’s a genius. And he puts the guys in position, and guys step up and make plays.”
On defense, the Eagles are anchored by Brevard and Khalil Baker. Both are North Carolina natives – with Brevard hailing from Durham and Baker coming from Winston-Salem – and each lead the team in their own ways. Baker has four interceptions on the season, helping halt the opposing passing attack, while Brevard is a fierce run-stopper with 9.5 tackles for loss this year.
“On this side of the ball, we preach just going hard. Effort, relentless, every rep. That’s our standard here,” Brevard said. “Just making sure I do my job.”
Showcase for HBCUs
This is Oliver’s third full-season coaching at NC Central, the school he played for and graduated from in 1998. He’s the third NC Central alumnus to be named head coach of the Eagles’ football team.
The 46-year-old has spent his entire coaching career in HBCU football, with previous stops at Delaware State, Grambling State, North Carolina A&T and Southern. He understands what sort of opportunity the Celebration Bowl can be as a showcase for the team, its players and the university.
“It's important for the university to get our brand out there, so everybody can see how great our university is, and our program is,” Oliver said. “But I told these guys when we recruited them, that's why we brought you here. We told you you’re going to have an opportunity to play on national television. We told you about the opportunity to play in this Celebration Bowl, being we're the only FCS conference that has it. The guys saw a vision, bought in, and now this is where we are. So now we got to close the deal.”