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Ushering in drama and excitement of a new HBCU season

Get your popcorn ready for the start of HBCU football, which is in a stone cold groove heading into a new season.

This season, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) boast a collection of superior athletes representing their schools, their families, the alumni and themselves. Freshmen get their first real taste of the college football experience. Seniors enjoy their last opening day kickoff and look ahead to possibly playing themselves into NFL draft consideration. Fresh-faced newcomers are on the sidelines and in the stands, anticipating what could be, while at the same time in awe of the HBCU marching bands.

What makes HBCU football so special? It’s the classics, including the Palmetto Capital City Classic, MEAC/SWAC Challenge, Turkey Day Classic and the Bayou Classic, among many others. HBCU's don't have massive recruiting budgets, so these classics are not only for the fans, but for the preservation of the programs. Many HBCUs have scheduled classics on the first week of playoffs because that traditional game alone will generate substantially more revenue and exposure than a playoff game would.

HBCU coaches put in a ton of work, determination and grit in order to build a team. There are no state-of-the-art practice facilities. It's all about accomplishing more with less.

Consider this familiar scenario: The smart HBCU coach sits at the table of the five-star athlete that lives in his region, who is being recruited by FBS schools. The smart HBCU coach continues to recruit that five-star athlete with the same vigor as the FBS schools recruiting him. The smart HBCU coach continues to press upon that five-star athlete that if you have the talent and ability, they will find you and you can compete anywhere, but it is my appointed duty to prepare you for life beyond the gridiron. That smart HBCU coach is the first to get a phone call when that five-star recruit announces that the decision he made on signing day has not worked out and he is looking to continue his football and academics elsewhere. In some cases, there is no phone call at all, but the beat goes on.

The beat does go on and there is plenty to look forward to in what should be an exciting 2015 season. Alcorn State QB John Gibbs Jr. is the player to watch. He has all the NFL measurables (6-foot-6, 220 pounds) and the stats (2,482 passing yards, 21 touchdowns with 1,006 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns) to support not only being the best player in HBCU football this season, but also one of the best players in the country. He also plays on what looks like the best team and will get an opportunity to showcase his potential against a very talented Georgia Tech defense in the first game of the season.

The Yellow Jackets can be scored on, but keeping them off the field is the monumental task at hand for Alcorn State. If the Braves' defense can stand stout for a drive or two and if their high-powered offense can put points on the board, perhaps Tech will have to abandon its clock-drowning offensive identity and this will become a ballgame.

Another player to watch in HBCU football is South Carolina State defensive lineman Javon Hargrave. He is the reigning MEAC Defensive Player of the Year and an FCS first-team All-American. Last season he had 23.5 tackles for a loss and 16 sacks, tying an FCS record with six in one game.

As far as potential upsets, North Carolina Central travels just over five miles across town to take on a talented Duke team in Week 2. Because this is an intracity matchup, things could get quite interesting. Another game to watch is a Week 3 matchup between North Carolina Central and Florida International. This will be the home opener for FIU, which lost last season to Bethune Cookman.

HBCU football can have the feel of theater at its best. It’s not just a game; it is an event. Fraternities and sororities stepping in the breezeways as they enter the arena. Fans not clamoring to get to the concession stands at halftime but to get to their seats to behold the performance of the bands. Devotees remaining well after the game has been decided and the final horn has blown to watch the postgame battle of the bands. If one word could describe the atmosphere at an HBCU football game, it would probably be "celebration." Fittingly, this year’s inaugural Celebration Bowl on Dec. 19 will pit the MEAC champion against the SWAC champion.

We are all familiar with the movie "Field of Dreams" and the line, “If you build it, they will come." That is what HBCUs have done. They built the field for players such as James "Shack" Harris, The "Big Cat" Ernie Ladd, Walter Payton, Jerry Rice, Eddie Robinson, Doug Williams, Michael Strahan, Steve McNair and Shannon Sharpe, among many, many others. There are many superlatives and accolades that can be used to describe the accomplishments of these men: Super Bowl champion, Hall of Fame inductee, HBCU Hall of Fame inductee, NFL and college head coach, NFL MVP ... the list goes on. All of these gentlemen of distinction matriculated from an HBCU program, which understates the importance of HBCU football and its contributions to the sport and beyond.

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