Commentary

Magic in the air

Originally Published: October 28, 2009
By Donald Hunt | Special to ESPN.com

If you're a big fan of black college football, it doesn't get much better than the Magic City Classic. The annual classic between Alabama A&M and Alabama State is not only one of the biggest HBCU games in the country, it's actually one of the biggest games in college football.

The game is played at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala., where 70,000 fans packed the stadium to see one of the most exciting games of the season. These two teams have been playing each other in the classic for 68 years. Alabama A&M holds the edge in the series 34-30-3. The Bulldogs have won the past four years, including last season's 17-16 victory over the Hornets.

Alabama A&M head coach Anthony Jones has a good way of describing this longtime rivalry between these old-school HBCUs. Jones, a former NFL player with the 1987 Super Bowl Washington Redskins, has never seen anything like this classic.

"It's a tremendous atmosphere," Jones said. "Very seldom will you get into a stadium anywhere on any level even in the NFL. A regularly scheduled game, when you get into a stadium you have about 70,000 people and half of them are going to be cheering for you. The other half is going to be cheering for your opponent. That's a very, very unique situation. Even in the Super Bowl, it wasn't that way. Half of them were cheering for us. Half was cheering for the Denver Broncos. You got rivalries all over the country that experience those situations. We're in black college football is one of the most unique."

The Classic has featured some great players over the years, such as Minnesota Vikings quarterback Tarvaris Jackson and Indianapolis Colts defensive end Robert Mathis. Jackson was a big-time player for Alabama State. Mathis starred at Alabama A&M.

"They come back for this game as much as they come back for homecoming," Jones said. "They understand the importance, tradition and rivalry of the game."

Reggie Barlow, Alabama State head coach, has played and coached in this game. Barlow knows the game produces a lot of the pageantry that comes with HBCU football -- the bands, parties and alumni celebrations.

"It's always a huge game for both teams and fans," Barlow said. "It's the Magic City Classic. Everybody talks about it. Everybody is all excited about playing the game. We recruit the same players. I've come full circle to play in this game and coach in it and just know what it represents. You get a million calls leading up to the game."

This is a rivalry game, and it's a big one in the Southwestern Athletic Conference Eastern Division standings. The Bulldogs (4-3 overall, 1-2 league) are coming off an open date, and will look to end a two-game losing streak and stay in the heart of the division race. The Hornets (4-3 overall, 1-3 league) ended a three-game losing streak last week, posting their first conference win of the year over Alcorn State.

"It's still not over," Jones said. "There's a lot of football to be played on both sides. It's going to be very interesting to see how this thing unfolds. We talked about this. The coaches talked about this at the beginning. I think a lot of people thought, 'Yeah, right.' Now, everybody is seeing it. There'll be a lot of scoreboard watching over this week and the next couple weeks."

Alabama State received some great performances from quarterback Anthony Speight and strong safety Kejuan Riley in the win over Alcorn State. Speight completed 15 of 23 passes for 161 yards and two touchdowns. Riley had a career-best seven tackles (five solo) and a team-high three pass breakups. His pass breakups helped the Hornets limit the Braves to just seven points through the first three quarters.

"They're a tough football team," Jones said about Alabama State. "They do a lot of things. They're going to throw a lot of things at you. If you're not sharp or you're trying to do too many things, it's going to confuse you. They have a lot of talent on that football team. They're well coached. They'll be motivated."

Running back Ulysses Banks has been a terrific player for the Bulldogs. Banks has 118 carries for 606 yards (5.1 yards a carry) while scoring four touchdowns. Barlow knows his defense will be tested with Banks on the field.

"He runs hard," Barlow said. "He runs with power and speed. He catches the ball well. He played in the Magic City Classic as a freshman. He was running back kickoffs and scoring touchdowns. I just think he has the total package."

Barlow, like Jones, won't have to spend a lot of time getting his players ready for this game.

"I don't have to go into motivation tactics or great speeches like I do all the other weeks," Barlow said.

HBCU notes

• Prairie View A&M running back Donald Babers was named the SWAC Offensive Player of the Week. Babers rushed 111 yards on 20 attempts with one touchdown while catching four passes for 63 yards with one touchdown in the Panthers' 16-14 win over Southern.

• Jackson State linebacker Ryan Rich was named the SWAC Defensive Player of the Week. Rich intercepted two passes and recovered a blocked punt in the end zone for touchdown in the Tigers' 25-16 win at Mississippi Valley State.

• Florida A&M quarterback Curtis Pulley was selected as the MEAC Offensive Player of the Week. Pulley combined for 358 yards of total offense as he helped the Rattlers top Norfolk State 34-20. He connected on 13 of 22 passes for 173 yards and two touchdowns.

• Delaware State defensive back Avery Grant was named the MEAC Defensive Player of the Week. Grant registered a season-high seven tackles, three solo. He also picked off a pass late in the fourth quarter and returned it 15 yards for a touchdown to seal the Hornets' victory over Morgan State.

• The SBN Sports Network Top 10 Black College football poll for this week:
1. South Carolina State
2. Prairie View A&M
3. Florida A&M
4. Grambling State
5. Tuskegee
6. Albany State
7. Alabama A&M
8. Morgan State
9. Southern
10. Shaw

• Prairie View A&M cracked The Sports Network FCS Top 25 poll. The Panthers (5-1) made their first appearance debuting at No. 25 in the poll.

• Alcorn State, tied for the lead in the SWAC Eastern Division, will play its second straight road game at Texas Southern on TSU's homecoming weekend. The Braves had a two-game winning streak end last week at Alabama State.

• Grambling State returns from an open date to celebrate homecoming against Mississippi Valley State. The G-men have won their past two games and look to keep up with division-leading Prairie View A&M. Mississippi Valley will look to end its three-game losing streak and stay alive in the East race.

• North Carolina A&T running back Dontavious Payne was named the MEAC Rookie of the Week. Payne recorded a career-high 113 yards rushing on 21 carries with two touchdowns in the Aggies' victory over Howard. Payne had two rushes for 40 yards or more with a long of 49.

Donald Hunt is a columnist for The Philadelphia Tribune. You can reach him at dhunt37261@aol.com.