Updated: Feb 10
North Carolina A&T shook up the HBCU landscape this week when the university announced it is leaving the MEAC for the Big South Conference. The Aggies are the third school to leave the conference in recent years. Hampton University was the first to make the move from the historic Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference which was founded more than a half-century ago followed by Savannah State. The Aggies will become a Big South member on July 1, 2021, and begin competing in the conference during the 2021-22 season.
NC A&T, which is located in Greensboro, NC, will become the conference's 12th full-time member. Just as in the MEAC, NC A&T will boast the largest enrollment in the conference.
As the largest HBCU in the United States with arguably the largest alumni participation rate with respect to their support of institutional events, NC A&T has been been a mainstay in ESPN's Celebration Bowl. The Aggies have been bowl champions 4 of 5 times since the bowl game's inception in 2015.
While some critics argue the Celebration bowl has prevented top-level HBCU athletes from competing in the more competitive FCS playoffs, others maintain the event gives those same athletes a chance to be seen on a national stage during the ESPN featured broadcast that typically presents close games with exciting finishes. The first four games of the developing bowl experience were decided by a combined 15 points. Those that support the latter point to players such as NC A&T's former running back and 2015 Celebration Bowl MVP Tarik Cohen. Cohen amazed viewers with his nationally televised performance that included 22 carries for 295 yards and 3 touchdowns. That performance in the inaugural Celebration bowl helped improve Cohen's visibility among pro team's. Cohen went on to be drafted in the fourth round of the 2017 NFL draft by the Chicago Bears.
The Aggies' departure does, however, open up opportunities for a more balanced representation of the MEAC in the post-season bowl event. NC A&T held the Celebration Bowl title four times in the event's 5-year history - most recently achieving a three-pete after decimating Alcorn State in a very lopsided 44-64 victory. Celebration Bowl president John Grant recently opened up about the yearly competition for the bid to his bowl game and was adamant that although NC A&T has been the face for the MEAC in many of the games, the competition to represent the conference is always extremely tight and will continue as the Aggies depart.
"We don't see any real impact on the bowl game at all," Grant said. "Either way, the Celebration Bowl is going to thrive."
Although lacking the dominant rosters of previous Aggie teams, several MEAC schools such as Bethune-Cookman University and North Carolina Central typically perform at the upper ranks of the conference standing and are ready to fill the void. It may, in fact eliminate the repeat appearances by NC A&T that made the match-up highly predictable.