The road to the Celebration Bowl for North Carolina Central was not paved with cupcakes and tomato cans in the estimation of head coach Trei Oliver.
Instead, it was anything but.
But that journey would likely never have happened if not for the departures of Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M to the SWAC that forced the Eagles’ brain trust to get creative in what was a six-team league in the MEAC.
“When we looked out of conference, I really wanted to look at some tough opponents,” said Oliver Thursday during a Celebration Bowl pre-game press conference ahead of next Saturday’s matchup against Jackson State. “I think that the MEAC is underrated. I mean, I don’t think we get nearly as much credit as we should. So for us to get credit, let’s play some folks.”
The Eagles’ (9-2) 2022 schedule featured a neutral site test, a ranked road challenge, and opponents that were competing for conference championships.
It all started in Charlotte at the Duke’s Mayo Classic against Big South favorite North Carolina A&T. The underdog Eagles pulled off a 28-13 Week Zero upset. Two weeks later at then-No. 25 New Hampshire, NC Central piled up 205 rushing yards and averaged better than five yards per play in a 45-27 road win to vault them into the FCS Top 25 rankings.
The Eagles would go 6-2 the rest of the way, including wins over MEAC co-champion Howard and Ohio Valley opponent Tennessee Tech.
It was those wins — and even losses to Campbell and South Carolina State in between — that truly refined NC Central into a conference champion and HBCU title contender.
“So you have to schedule these tough non-conference games for people on the outside of your conference to respect you,” said Oliver. “I think we are battle tested. You can’t sit back and play a bunch of low-level schools that you just go out and beat up on and then want people to respect you.
Jackson State, a team that enters the matchup a perfect 12-0 and overwhelming favorite to win the Celebration Bowl, has functioned as the bully on the playground all season. It is that test — like all the others they’ve faced so far — Oliver and the Eagles embrace challenging.
“To get respect, you have to go knock off the big guys,” he said. “You can’t knock off the little guys. So smack the big boys and you’ll get some respect.”
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