Celebration Bowl, Mercedes-Benz Stadium
Photo: HBCU Sports

The Celebration Bowl makes its triumphant return after a year off seeing the MEAC champion South Carolina State Bulldogs face off against the SWAC champion Jackson State Tigers.

This year’s game is very special as for the first time in the six-year history of the Celebration Bowl, it will be played in front of a sellout crowd.

This will be Jackson State’s first Celebration Bowl after capping off the regular season that saw the team finish 10-1 overall and an unbeaten 8-0 in conference with a 27-10 win in the SWAC championship game.

South Carolina State will also be making its first-ever postseason bowl appearance after claiming the MEAC championship finishing 6-5 overall including a perfect 5-0 in MEAC play.

Here is a preview of the 2021 Celebration Bowl.

How Jackson State takes home the crown

The answer to what Jackson State has to do to win this game is pretty simple … just don’t blow it.

Jackson State is the overwhelming favorite to win this game and much of that has to do with the fact that the Tigers had the best defense in all of the FCS this season.

The Tigers’ defense rank third in points allowed per game(13.5), second in offensive yards allowed per game (255.9), and led the FCS in total sacks (53.0).

Their defense is led by linebacker James Houston who finished in the top five in voting for the Buck Buchanan award given to the top defensive player in the FCS.

Houston filled the stat sheet this season recording 64.0 tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss, 14.5 sacks, nine QB hits, seven forced fumbles and an interception.

He was part of an elite linebacker trio that also included Aubrey Miller and Keonte Hampton that recorded at least 10 tackles for loss and four sacks during the year.

Antwan Owens is the anchor of the defensive line putting together an impressive season with 60.0 tackles, 17.0 tackles for loss, 6.0 sacks, two pass breakups and a forced fumble.

Paired on the line with Owens is Justin Ragin who posted 6.0 tackles for loss and 5.0 sacks during the season.

As if the Tigers’ defense didn’t already have a slew of playmakers, their secondary features a trio of defensive backs (Al Young, CJ Holmes, Cam’ron Silmon-Craig) combined for 25 passes defended.

Meanwhile, Silmon-Craig and safety Shilo Sanders each recorded three interceptions. Only one other team in the SWAC had more than one player with three picks.

With all this talk of Jackson State’s defense, it’s easy to forget the Tigers have a pretty good offense as well led by the reigning quarterback Shedeur Sanders who was awarded the Jerry Rice for being the top freshman in the FCS.

Sanders is extremely efficient completing 68% of his passes the third-highest percentage in the FCS.

However, they have also shown they can get the job done on the ground particularly in the SWAC championship game when running back Peyton Pickett was named the game’s Offensive MVP when he tallied 107 rushing yards and a touchdown.

If Jackson State remains the team it has been all season, it will almost certainly come away with the win.

Also read: Celebration Bowl reaches new, six-year agreement with ESPN

How South Carolina State pulls off the upset

This will by far be the best FCS team that South Carolina State has played all season.

Other than Florida A&M, the Bulldogs have not played against a team that allowed fewer than 20 points per game.

South Carolina State played against Florida A&M this season but did not fare well losing to them 30-7. The key to that loss was the team’s inability to take care of the ball committing four in the game including three interceptions.

Limiting mental mistakes on offense will be key to the Bulldogs pulling off the upset. In addition, their offensive line will need to have their best game of the season protecting the pass and the run.

The Bulldogs allowed just 17 sacks in the regular season tied for the fewest in the MEAC while in the aforementioned game against Florida A&M, they allowed six.

This is a pass rush unlike any that the Bulldogs have seen this season. Quarterback Corey Fields is an excellent playmaker when given time with a great receiving corp of Shaquan Davis and Will Vereen

Establishing the run on offense will also be key as Jackson State has been prone to giving up big run games throughout the year.

They allowed a season-high 259 rushing yards and three touchdowns against Texas Southern as well as allowing 100 yards five other times including to the Division IIs Delta State.

Bulldogs running back Kendrell Flowers has been on a tear in his last two games combining for 332 rushing yards scoring a touchdown. It is critical he has another big game for South Carolina State to win.

On defense, the Bulldogs have a loaded secondary that includes Decobie Durant, BJ Davis and Zafir Kelly who were all selected to the All-MEAC conference team.

While these guys have been great playmakers for their team, they have not done well stopping other teams through the air allowing at least two touchdown passes in four games this year (not including games against FBS opponents).

The SCSU secondary will need to have its best performance of the season disrupting Jackson State’s efficient passing game.

Prediction

It is no surprise that Jackson State is the favorite to win this game as they arguably have the best team from top to bottom in all of FCS football. However, it would not be wise to sleep on South Carolina State. The Bulldogs have some very talented players on both sides of the ball that could potentially make an impact in this game. That being said, this Jackson State team is on a mission in its pursuit of greatness and it will continue with a win in this game.

Jackson State 35-17



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