One of the biggest storylines this year in college football has been the departure of Deion Sanders from his alma mater, Jackson State, to the FBS ranks. Sanders’ pilgrimage to Colorado falls in line with the rest of his time at JSU. The camera... expectedly... followed Coach Prime and the Tigers wherever they went over the last two years. The limelight was on them so much so, in fact, that some might not recall who actually ended up hoisting the Celebration Bowl trophy last December.
Spoiler alert: it wasn’t Jackson State.
Celebration Bowl Stunner
North Carolina Central quietly and swiftly flew under the radar for most of last season until they met JSU in Atlanta... then it wasn’t so quiet. After putting together an incredible 10-2 run, the Eagles awed crowd of nearly 50,000 in Mercedes-Benz Stadium when they pulled off an overtime shocker over the heavily favored Tigers to win their first ever Celebration Bowl.
In a game that featured a little bit of everything, NCCU outsmarted, outperformed and outlasted Jackson State and did so with nearly every sportsbook and media outlet against them. Even when then-Tigers quarterback Shedeur Sanders mordaciously connected with Travis Hunter for a touchdown in the waning seconds of regulation to send the contest to OT, the Eagles didn’t waver when... let’s be honest... a lot of others would have.
During the extra time, signal-caller Davius Richard displayed the poise and grit that had gotten him and his team up to that point. Shortly after he drove down and bulldozed his way across the goal line to regain the lead, the defense did the rest. Shedeur Sanders’ fourth down pass fluttered to the ground as the Eagles bench exploded. It was arguably the most exciting and unexpected conclusion in the game’s short history. The party was on at NC Central.
Keeping the Gang Together
Fast forward nearly eight months and a lot has changed in the world of HBCU football, especially at the top. The Sanders show has now made its way to the FBS leaving uncertainty at Jackson State. 430 miles to the east, Florida A&M is emerging as a new SWAC favorite thanks in large part to these changing tides. And in the MEAC? It’s still NCCU that’s getting the early nods.
Nearly every major preseason FCS poll has the Eagles currently slotted in the Top 15 and rightfully so. The team is retaining much of the talent that carried them the distance in 2022 and that’ll be huge.
Perhaps no returning name is bigger than that of the aforementioned Davius Richard. The dynamic quarterback who led the team in rushing last year and threw for 25 touchdowns will be strapping up the cleats for his senior season and it could be the best one yet. Richard picked up a pile of hardware last fall including the MEAC’s Offensive Player of the Year award, the Celebration Bowl MVP and a finalist spot for the Walter Payton Award.
After already bumping himself to the top spot in the school’s record books for single-season pass completions (199) percentage (64%) and total offense (3,449 yards), Richard finds himself on the cusp of setting a new program mark for career passing yardage as well. Him returning is vital to the whole operation and if he can stay healthy, there’s no reason to suspect NC Central won’t have one of the top offenses in the nation yet again in 2023.
Richard, however, is not the only key returning piece. On offense the Eagles will bring back several playmakers around him including running back Latrell Collier along with receivers Devin Smith and Quentin McCall. The offensive line will also feature a handful of returning talent as well.
Collier played a major role in 2022’s success as he ran for 709 yards and seven scores for a rushing attack that averaged 210.6 yards per game. Smith and McCall, meanwhile, teamed up to account for 840 yards through the air and 10 receiving touchdowns a season ago. Having all these offensive weapons back in the arsenal will be huge.
On the other side of the ball, star DB Khalil Baker is also back and that means that NC Central should again have a ball-hawking secondary. Baker was a one-man no-fly zone last year, intercepting four passes and breaking up another five. He led the team with 61 total tackles and even recovered a fumble. The team as a whole notched 11 picks in 2022 and batted away 36 passes.
Finally, the glue holding it all together will once more be head coach Trei Oliver. Oliver is entering his fourth season with the Eagles and has done nothing but impressed since taking over. He was named the 2022 MEAC Coach of the Year and has an overall record of 20-15 since taking over.
The pieces are all certainly there.
Now it’s just a matter of it all coming together for a second straight year for NC Central. The team has the experience under its belt now and with a group of guys who knows what it takes, it really feels like the sky is the limit. Navigating a tough schedule that features the likes of FBS power UCLA, a 2022 playoff team in Elon and the 2021 Celebration Bowl champions SC State will be no easy feat. If any group is up to it, however, it’s this one.
Oliver and his staff have built a legitimate contender in Durham and one that’s used to stout competition. These Eagles not only beat the cream of the crop in the HBCU world last fall but they also took down teams that made the FCS playoffs like New Hampshire (by a wide margin). They aren’t to be taken lightly in 2023 and odds are no one will overlook them this time around.
NC Central will kick off what it hopes to be a curtain call season by hosting Division II’s Winston-Salem State on September 2.