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MEACís shot at football redemption, courtesy of the NCAA
League earns automatic FCS playoff bid
Published Wednesday, October 14, 2020 6:15 am
by Bonitta Best | The Triangle Tribune

With the 2020 Celebration Bowl cancelled, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference's postseason agenda has a lifeline courtesy of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, which extended an automatic bid to the league when the season kicks off in the spring.

Former CIAA Commissioner Leon Kerry used to always brag that the biggest difference between Division I and Division II HBCU teams was that in DII, teams had a legitimate shot to win a national championship.

While no CIAA team has ever won a DII football championship, Winston-Salem State did get a seat at the table after advancing to the title game in 2012. The Rams lost to Valdosta State.

In basketball, however, the conference has had its share of successes: the Rams under legendary coach Clarence “Big House” Gaines in 1967; Morgan State (yes, the Bears were once DII) in ’74; North Carolina Central in ’89; and Virginia Union three times in three different decades under another legendary coach Dave Robbins (’80, ’92, 2005).
The women broke through with championships by VUU in 1983, Hampton in ‘88 and Shaw in ‘12.

Over in the MEAC, Florida A&M has the conference’s only NCAA national championship among the Big 3 of football, and women’s and men’s basketball.
Ironically, the Rattlers won the title in the first year of the newly formed Division I-AA (now Football Championship Subdivision) in 1978, knocking off Massachusetts, 35-28.

But the MEAC may have its best chance at making some noise this season. With the pandemic sending the sports world into a schizophrenic frenzy, the league was granted an automatic berth to the FCS playoffs. The opportunity is extra special since the NCAA reduced the playoff field, for this season only, from 24 teams to 16.

“I am excited for our student-athletes and coaches to participate in the FCS playoffs,” Commissioner Dennis E. Thomas said. “Furthermore, the MEAC is primed to make history this spring with its first-ever championship game, and it is exciting to make that sort of history in our 50th anniversary.”

The conference was given an automatic berth until the late 1990s, but teams still earned at-large spots. From 1999 to 2014, FAMU advanced farther than any other team – a semifinal loss to Youngstown in ’99. The only other squad to win one playoff game during that time period was North Carolina A&T under Bill Hayes. The Aggies defeated another HBCU, Tennessee State, also in ’99. The MEAC has lost 19 straight playoff contests since then.

The Celebration Bowl came into the picture in 2015. It pits the MEAC regular-season champion against the SWAC champion during a weekend filled with a smorgasbord of activities in Atlanta. And while the MEAC can still earn an at-large, only North Carolina A&T has made the cut. That didn’t go well.

The Aggies were still crying over their regular-season loss to archrival North Carolina Central in 2016, which knocked them out of the Celebration Bowl, to put up much of a fight against a depleted Richmond team. A&T fans always get mad whenever I complain about that loss.

“We’ve shut out NCCU for the last two years,” they harp. That would mean more if the Eagles weren’t in rebuilding mode. Not to mention it proves my point.
But this season might be different. The CB has been canceled, and the conference is hosting its first-ever MEAC championship game in April, with the winner advancing to the playoffs.

Last season ended in a tie for first place between A&T and the rejuvenated South Carolina State. FAMU, which would have been the outright winner, was on probation and disqualified. The Aggies and Rattlers are leaving the conference after this season, along with Bethune-Cookman, so you know they’re slobbering for a playoff run.

I’m starting to drool just thinking about a return of HBCU football myself.

Bonitta Best is sports editor at The Triangle Tribune in Durham.


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