Deion Sanders has a question: Why not have an HBCU in a bowl game?
Deion Sanders had numerous goals when, in 2020, he accepted the job as head coach at Jackson State, a historical Black college in Mississippi.
One was to restore the Tigers program, whose illustrious history includes four Pro Football Hall of Famers (Lem Barney, Walter Payton, Robert Brazile and Jackie Slater).
Well, JSU is 9-0, boasts numerous highly ranked recruits and is averaging over 42,000 fans a game.
Another goal was to bring attention not just to JSU but all of HBCU football and HBCU schools in general.
From ESPN broadcasts to "60 Minutes" appearances to the daily power of having a promoter such as Sanders involved, that too has been accomplished. Even as a potential jump to an SEC or Pac-12 job looms for Coach Prime, he isn’t done.
Sanders advocated this week that the best team from an HBCU each season should get the chance to play in a bowl game against an FBS opponent.
HBCUs compete in FCS football, which is considered a division lower than not just the major programs such as Alabama or Ohio State, but even Central Michigan or Middle Tennessee.
The competition might be a step up, but the potential exposure of being part of the nationally televised bowl season would be considerable.
"Why can’t that be us?" Sanders said this week. "I’m just saying, ‘Why can’t that be us?’"
The short answer is NCAA legislation. FBS is one division, FCS is another.
There would need to be a reworking of NCAA rules to even do this, although it's a simple fix.
There will be 41 bowl games this season, meaning 82 of the 131 FBS teams will reach the postseason. Last year, 21 teams qualified for a bowl game with just a 6-6 record. Rutgers, as a late replacement, actually got into the Gator Bowl at 5-7. That’s a lot of mediocrity.
“You’ve got teams that are virtually 6-5 going to a bowl game,” Sanders said. “Ain’t nobody going to see them play, and nobody is turning the channel to witness that foolishness. But you have us that travels deep and travels heavy."
This isn’t about taking a slot in the College Football Playoff or even the Rose Bowl. There are a slew of minor games that essentially attract little more than diehard college football fans and gamblers. Did last year's Myrtle Beach Bowl between 6-6 Old Dominion and 6-6 Tulsa get anyone fired up? One of those teams playing the best of HBCU would be more intriguing.
And, as Sanders noted, it would likely feature better attendance because JSU, among others, does indeed travel “deep” and “heavy.” The Tigers have a bigger fan base than a number of FCS schools.
A Southern-based minor bowl game would likely covet this opportunity. These are showcases anyway, essentially exhibition matches designed to reward teams while promoting a product and pumping up a local economy.
Why not, right?
The main reason is until now, very few people even considered this an idea, let alone a good one. HBCUs do play Division I basketball (and other sports), including multiple leagues with automatic bids to March Madness. Football though is different. Maybe it took Sanders to raise the issue.
FBS and HBCU teams do occasionally play during the regular season. Alabama State lost 45-7 to UCLA and Florida A&M fell to North Carolina, 56-24, among others, this year. UCLA and UNC, though, are top-20 teams. What happens against a 6-6 club out of the MAC?
There may be concerns about the health and safety of the players due to the extension of the season, but if Deion Sanders isn’t worried about it then he certainly knows more than most.
HBCUs do have a bowl game — the Celebration Bowl — which features the champions of its two most prominent conferences, the SWAC and MEAC. It's played in mid-December at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Last year South Carolina State defeated JSU in front of 48,653 fans.
It’s a great weekend that might be even better if the winner of that advanced to a FBS bowl played in late December or early January against a FBS opponent. This would require moving a smaller bowl, but so what?
"This is after the Celebration Bowl," Sanders said. "That's a goal. This is a pre-New Year’s Day bowl game that we would love to have an opportunity to play in. Along with FAMU and some of the other wonderful teams that are doing some wonderful things."
Coach Prime isn’t wrong. As bowl games lose value due to an expanded playoff and so many top players skipping the games to prepare for the NFL, here is something new for an old industry to embrace.
It won’t be done this year, but someone should get it done. It can be one more enduring legacy of having Deion Sanders at an HBCU.