When Charles McClelland first contemplated moving forward with expanding the SWAC, he as commissioner envisioned a scenario such as the one which has presented itself over the last few weeks.
That is the league simultaneously featuring at least one member school in the FCS playoffs and another participating in the Celebration Bowl, the unofficial HBCU national championship game, versus a MEAC opponent.
The vision — as far off as it might have seemed years ago — became a reality when Florida A&M, which finished second in the SWAC East Division in its maiden season in the conference, earned a berth in the 24-team playoff with a 9-2 record, a first for the league since 1997.
On Saturday, the other half of the plan will unfold in grand fashion for the SWAC.
Jackson State, led by the vivacious Deion Sanders, will host upstart Prairie View in a SWAC Championship Game that, said McClelland, is expected to draw close to 60,000 in attendance at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jackson.
“You go back and look at some of the things that we talked about prior to the season. It was about the addition of FAMU and Bethune-Cookman coming in that we would have a legitimate Division I schedule,” said McClelland, “so if you play that schedule, you’re going to have those opportunities.
“That was the plan from day one to have a SWAC championship game, to have a team representative in the Celebration Bowl and a representative, if not more than one, in the FCS playoffs. That’s the significance of where we are in our league. You can be part of our league and play in a bowl game and play in an FCS playoff game.”
The recent boon comes at a point when the SWAC — at least as a football entity — leads the FCS in overall fan attendance, has fostered a national television and streaming partnership with ESPN that allows for greater exposure and increased financial windfall.
‘SEC of FCS football’
“That’s what we deserve,” said Alabama A&M head coach Connell Maynor. “We’ve got great players, great coaches, and we deserve for our product to be on the national stage.”
The perception, for what’s it’s worth, is that the SWAC isn’t a strong football brand or not considered worthy to be mentioned among the traditional powers in the FCS because of postseason futility and its inclination to value classics, a title game, and now HBCU bowl game over pursuing national championships.
But that has seemingly all changed with league expansion and a program receiving a bid to the playoffs within a five-month timeframe. The SWAC can have its cake and eat it, too.
“We kind of dubbed ourselves the SEC of FCS football,” said Florida A&M head coach Willie Simmons. “The fact that we have a team that’s going to the Celebration Bowl for a Black college national title and a team that’s in the playoffs for an FCS national title only raises the profile of our conference.”