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NC Central Carries Weight of Tortured HBCU Playoff History into FCS Postseason

The Eagles are looking to buck a trend of unsuccessful playoff trips for HBCU schools.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 17 Cricket Celebration Bowl Photo by Austin McAfee/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In 1978 Florida A&M etched itself into FCS football history when it took home the first ever Division I-AA national championship. The Rattlers capped off a 12-1 season with a 35-28 victory over UMass in Wichita Falls, TX. It was an exciting conclusion to the subdivision’s inaugural season and that year’s four-team playoff tournament, especially seeing as FAMU was the lone at-large qualifier. It also marked one of the few instances of success that an HBCU program has had in the FCS postseason.

It’s not all that common that these schools even can qualify for the playoffs and the process is a bit muddled on the rare occasions in which they do. The MEAC and SWAC... the two conferences that a majority of HBCU teams call home... deal in their own postseason that butts up against the FCS tournament every year. The winners of the two leagues are contractually obligated to participate in the annual Celebration Bowl that takes place in mid December. That, of course, means the league champions are not eligible for the playoffs. The only way one of these teams can make it is via at-large selection and even then, usually a nine-win season or greater is required to be considered.

This year North Carolina Central fell into all those stipulations and got the nod. The Eagles will battle Richmond, another at-large bid, on Saturday, marking their first ever playoff game and the first time since Florida A&M in 2021 that a MEAC or SWAC team has played in the tournament. The Rattlers lost that season to Southeastern Louisiana 38-14 in the opening round.

NCCU is hoping its playoff trip, however, will go different than those of most of its HBCU counterparts. Overall teams from the MEAC are 6-31 all time in the playoffs and members from the SWAC are 0-20 (Florida A&M was a member of the MEAC when it won the national title in ‘78).

Last year’s Celebration Bowl champion Eagles have reason to believe they can be the exception, though. With one of the country’s most electric quarterbacks leading their offense in Davius Richard, NCCU could give the Spiders a real push come Saturday afternoon. Richard has put up video game numbers in is career, passing for 8,729 yards, rushing for another 1,975 and accounting for 113 total touchdowns. Richmond’s pass defense has struggled this year as it surrenders well over 200 yards per game.

The Eagles own defense isn’t shabby either. DB Jason Chambers is dangerous for opposing passers with three interceptions, six PBUs and a fumble recovery this season. Linebacker Jayden Flaker is force over the middle with 75 tackles and 4.5 sacks as well.

Outside of individual talent and stats, though, NC Central has recent history on its side this weekend as well, a recent history of handling its business against CAA competition. Earlier this year the Eagles knocked off North Carolina A&T, Campbell and Elon. Last season they defeated New Hampshire who turned out to be a playoff team in 2022.

Trei Oliver’s team appears as though its built for this spotlight and big games are not going to be an issue for the psyche of this group. Being an underdog to Deion Sanders’ Tigers didn’t faze them in Atlanta last fall. A road trip to UCLA earlier this year is also under their belt. The Eagles have felt the heat of the big lights before.

If indeed they do bounce Richmond it would be a landmark victory for not only the program but for the MEAC and for HBCU ball as a whole. Whether or not any of that will be on the minds of Richard, Oliver and company come Saturday in Virginia, it’s something that the Eagles do bring with them into these playoffs.

North Carolina Central v UCLA Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The game will kick off at 2:00 PM (ET) on Saturday and Albany awaits the winner. This game, like all of the first round games, can be streamed on ESPN+.