It doesn’t get much better than perfection. The top story in Aggie Athletics in 2017 was Aggies football’s 12-0 season. Happy New Year.
A slight decline in 2017 for the North Carolina A&T football team would have been excusable in the opinions of many considering the Chicago Bears drafted the most decorated player in school history in running back Tarik Cohen (the No. 3 story on the countdown). In world of athletics, A&T suddenly stood for After Tarik as pundits wondered how the loss of Cohen would impact the program.
N.C. A&T head coach Rod Broadway had one simple solution to the problem. Recruiting. While Cohen was rewriting the school and conference record books like they were rough draft manuscripts, Broadway and his coaching staff were building a program. Many identified N.C. A&T football with Cohen, the first three-time Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year. But when he left the Gate City for the Windy City, the foundation that was built underneath his elusive feet was strong.
The Aggies started four seniors on the offensive line this season including All-American left tackle Brandon Parker (6-foot-7, 309, Kannapolis, NC). They were assigned to protect junior quarterback Lamar Raynard (6-4, 200, High Point, NC) who developed into one of the best quarterbacks in the nation this season.
Running back Marquell Cartwright (5-8, 201, JR, High Point, NC) had 11 career touchdowns despite being Cohen’s backup for two seasons. At receiver, the Aggies returned sophomore and MEAC Rookie of the Year Elijah Bell (6-2, 223, Wheeling, WVa.) Defensively, the Aggies returned their entire linebacking corps. Do-it-all rover Jeremy Taylor (5-11, 190, Kinston, NC) returned for his senior year after a career junior season, and a freshman cornerback with rich N.C. A&T ties named Franklin McCain III opened the 2017 season by intercepting every pass in sight.
It all resulted in the 2017 Aggies becoming the best football team in school history according to the numbers. With their 21-14 win over Grambling State in the Celebration Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, the Aggies finished 12-0 to become the first MEAC team to finish an entire season undefeated. They are the first FCS historically black university to finish untied and unbeaten since Division I-AA play began 39 years ago. The Aggies also broke the school record for wins and are the first A&T team to finish the regular season undefeated in 74 years. Their undefeated season in the MEAC is the school’s first in 18 years.
Gardner-Webb was the first to see that the Aggies program was more than just Cohen. Raynard completed 19 of 22 passes for a school record 86.4 completion percentage to lead the Aggies to a 45-3 road win in Boiling Springs, NC. Next came Division II Mars Hill who did not put up a fight against the stronger, faster Aggies in a 56-0 rout at Aggie Stadium. Raynard threw five first-half touchdown passes. The Aggies wrapped up their non-conference schedule with an upset win at the Charlotte 49ers, Division I-FBS school out of Conference USA. It was the Aggies second win over an FBS opponent in as many years. McCain sealed the win with a 74-yard INT return for a touchdown.
Conference play started with a 49-17 win over Morgan State in Baltimore in which McCain recorded two pick-6’s including a 100-yard return. The Aggies, playing their fourth road game in five weeks, grinded out a 21-7 win over rival South Carolina State in Orangeburg the next week. They then returned home for the Greatest Homecoming on Earth in which they demolished Delaware State 44-3. A return to the road saw the Aggies defeat Florida A&M for their homecoming, 31-20 in Tallahassee.
N.C. A&T’s toughest game of the season came on Oct. 21 in an ESPNU nationally-televised game at Aggie Stadium against Bethune-Cookman. The Aggies had to rally in the fourth quarter to beat the Wildcats 24-20. Two weeks later the Aggies went to Norfolk, Va., and defeated the Norfolk State Spartans 35-7. In the game, Raynard set the school’s single-season passing record. The Aggies took a share of the MEAC title the next week with a 36-17 win over Savannah State before clinching the outright title in a 24-10 win over arch rival North Carolina Central in the regular-season finale.
It was the Aggies first win over their rival in three years, and their first outright conference title in 14 years. Therefore, there was no decline for the Aggies. Instead, they went to Atlanta to become the best HBCU Division I-AA team ever, and they accomplished that too.