Last year, the N.C. Central football team wasn’t awarded any of the ESPNU Thursday night game slots given to MEAC schools.
Each week on national television, the MEAC was able to showcase two of its teams, and the Eagles, fresh off of consecutive league titles, were left out. That became a rallying cry for N.C. Central, as the team last season used the slight as motivation for its 8-0 record in league play and a third straight conference title.
The Eagles did end last season with consecutive televised games. They hosted N.C. A&T in the MEAC championship, a game assigned to ESPN3 when it became obvious both teams would enter the contest undefeated. A 42-21 win over the Aggies sent the Eagles to Atlanta, where they took on Grambling in the Air Force Reserves Celebration Bowl on ABC.
This season, N.C. Central (1-1) earned a spot in the limelight. This week on ESPNU, the Eagles host South Carolina State in one of two consecutive Thursday night games. Next week, the Eagles travel to Florida A&M for another game televised on ESPNU. Two TV games in as many weeks is a sign of respect from the league office, N.C. Central head coach Jerry Mack said, but is this group of Eagles ready for a prime time debut?
“It’s one of those situations where we talked about it all last year,” Mack said. “Now we are guaranteed two televised games. I think the guys are excited. Anytime you get to play on national television in front of the fans across the country, and their family can tune in and see them play, it’s always pretty special.”
The last time N.C. Central hosted a Thursday night game was in 2013, also against South Carolina State. The Eagles were embarrassed in the game shown on ESPNU, falling to the Bulldogs 44-3. The next year Mack arrived and N.C. Central has gone 12-2 overall in O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium. This group, especially on offense, isn’t as mature as the team a year ago, and Mack isn’t sure if they’re ready for the national exposure.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Mack said. “We’ll find out Thursday night.”
South Carolina State (1-1) won’t make life easy for the Eagles. The Bulldogs are coming off a 41-0 win over Johnson C. Smith. The last time the teams met was in 2014 in Orangeburg, S.C., with the Eagles winning a 48-35 shootout. The Bulldogs are led by veteran head coach Buddy Pugh, whom Mack referred to as a “future Hall of Famer,” and are anchored on defense by senior linebacker Darius Leonard, the reigning and preseason MEAC Defensive Player of the Year.
“It’s a lot of pride in that program,” Mack said. “So we know we’re going to have our hands full and better come ready to play.”
With a buzz around campus in anticipation of the game, it’s felt like homecoming week, Mack said. Mack expects a packed house, not quite the 15,715 in attendance for the N.C. A&T game last season, but a big-enough crowd that some of the younger players might get bright-eyed. Mack has yet to find out how much different this team is from the 2016 team, but he’s learning each week. He’ll find out a lot more once they are on the big, national stage on Thursday. One thing’s for sure, his team likes the spotlight on it.
“I think they do,” Mack said. “I think they do take pride in understanding they are top dog and people are going to be gunning for them and they are going to get everybody’s best. I tell them all time what they see on film, they have to amp that up times 10.”
South Carolina State at NC Central
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium, Durham