As the final seconds of the MEAC/SWAC Challenge expired late Saturday night in Atlanta, North Carolina Central players attempted to give head coach Trei Oliver a Gatorade shower to cement a 23-14 win over 15-point favorite Alcorn State.
The Eagles weren’t supposed to be victors on this night. After all, North Carolina Central was 4-8 in 2019 and hadn’t played meaningful football in 644 days.
The program also was part of a conference that had recently dwindled in numbers and might over the last 18 months.
Gone were Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman to the SWAC. North Carolina A&T, which had won four of the last five Celebration Bowls, moved to the Big South several seasons after former MEAC member Hampton bolted to the conference.
The perception going into the 2021 fall season was that the MEAC was going to be an afterthought in the HBCU landscape, particularly now that the rival SWAC had formed a so-called 12-team superconference.
The SWAC was also coming off a successful spring season where many of the league’s games were televised to a national audience headlined by Jackson State and its vivacious head coach Deion Sanders.
So it figured that Alcorn State — a program that dominated the SWAC over the last half-decade and had accumulated the most first-place votes of any program during July’s SWAC Media Day — would seemingly cruise versus North Carolina Central.
Many major HBCU football observers picked the Braves to win decisively. Even the entire ESPN ‘College GameDay’ panel selected Alcorn State, with Lee Corso donning a Steve McNair jersey and Braves helmet.
Then the game happened.
After North Carolina Central surrendered an early first-quarter touchdown, the Eagles settled in and over the next three quarters proved to be the better bunch in all phases.
Quarterback Davius Richard, who was the less-heralded signal-caller heading into this matchup guided a smart, methodical attack.
The sophomore, who was a third-string on the depth chart at one point, completed 61 percent of his passes for 184 yards to go along with a pair of rushing touchdowns in the win.
The defense held 2019 SWAC Offensive Player of the Year Felix Harper to 154 yards passing and made him look pedestrian for much of the night.
North Carolina Central’s unexpected jolt was big for a program that was picked to finish third in what is now a six-team league. It also was a shot in the arm for a conference that was perceived as done as an HBCU football power.
“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 after the game. “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.”
Oliver’s sentiment was echoed Monday by other coaches in the MEAC during a virtual media availability.
“To me, the MEAC is the premiere HBCU conference in the country,” said Delaware State coach Rod Milstead. “What (North Carolina) Central did to me wasn’t an upset. The best team won.”
And for nearly two decades, the MEAC has gotten the better of the SWAC.
The league improved to 11-4 all-time in the MEAC/SWAC Challenge after Saturday. Taking into account the Celebration Bowl results, the MEAC is an impressive 15-5 versus the SWAC in major bowls or classic matchups.
“I think it is great for our conference that anytime we play against what everybody considers the best conference in HBCU (football), and knock them off, and be able to say we’re still here and (that we) play really good football in the MEAC,” said first-year Norfolk State head coach Dawson Odums.
When asked by a reporter why the MEAC has “dominated” versus the SWAC, longtime South Carolina State head coach Buddy Pough interrupted saying, “It has, it has. Make sure you say that again.”
“Yes, we’ve had pretty good luck against the SWAC in the years I’ve been around here,” said Pough. “I can tell you right now that both leagues can take care of themselves.”
Pough, who is entering his 20th season on the sideline, is hopeful — despite the recent challenges impacting the MEAC, the conference will continue to maintain its place as the top Black college league.
“We will figure out a way to deal with our circumstances just as well as those guys (the SWAC) seem to be thinking they’ve got the whole world in their hands right now, “he said. “But we will figure it out. I’ve got confidence in our administration and presidents involved.”