Before torrential rainfall drenched fans and the field at Hard Rock Stadium on Sept. 5, Florida A&M head coach Willie Simmons made his way to the 50-yard line to meet his adversary in Jackson State football coach Deion Sanders.
Simmons, who was kicking off his fourth season as the Rattlers football coach and first season in the Southwestern Athletic Conference, greeted the Pro Football Hall of Famer moments before the kickoff of the Orange Blossom Classic. The two coaches shared words that would serve as a foreshadowing of the 2021 season.
“We said on the 50-yard line that the winner of this game would win the [SWAC] East and the other one would be on the outside looking in,” Simmons told reporters during the conference's weekly coaches call.
JSU defeated FAMU, 7–6, in a defensive battle that featured tons of missed opportunities, first-game jitters and penalties. In that moment, Simmons knew it would be an uphill battle for his team to earn a spot for postseason play in the Celebration Bowl—a clash between the respective MEAC and SWAC champions—or an at-large bid to the FCS playoffs.
But for Simmons, two things were going to happen as part of the mentality he's built within the FAMU program. One, the Rattlers were going to improve from the Jackson State loss and compete each week at a high level. Second, if FAMU won the remainder of its games, the program planned to make a case for why it deserved a spot in the FCS playoffs.
However, the odds of earning said spot were stacked against the Rattlers. And, according to Simmons, building a case for an at-large bid had to be done strategically.
The last time a historically Black college and university earned an at-large bid was 2016, when North Carolina A&T received one as the MEAC runner-up. The last time a SWAC school made an appearance in the playoffs (Division I-AA) was in ’98, when Jackson State accomplished the feat.
After JSU’s victory against Florida A&M, the Tigers (10–1, 8–0) suffered their only blemish of the season against FBS Louisiana-Monroe (12–7) on Sept. 18 and recently clinched home-field advantage in the SWAC championship game against Prairie View A&M on Dec. 4.
“Secretly, we were rooting for them [Jackson State] to lose twice or to win out, Simmons said.
FAMU (9–2, 7–1) began the conversation of making its case for a playoff spot after the Rattlers’ 35–31 victory on the road against Alabama A&M, the league’s champion from the spring ’21 season.
Other than a 38–17 loss to FBS South Florida on Sept. 18, the Rattlers won the remainder of their games, including a dominant 46–21 victory against Bethune-Cookman on Nov. 20 in the Florida Classic. It was a game FAMU had not won in nine years.
The stage was set. With a win against its biggest rival and a season backed by overcoming adversity with resilience, the only thing left for No. 22 FAMU to earn was a playoff bid. On Sunday, the hard work paid off as the NCAA announced that the Rattlers received an at-large bid to face No. 17 Southeastern Louisiana (8–3) in the first round of the FCS playoffs on Saturday evening in Hammond, La.
At the team’s watch party in Orlando on Sunday morning, Rattlers wide receiver Xavier Smith—who was on Instagram Live when the team’s name popped up on the screen—said he was lost for words.
“The moment was so surreal,” Smith says. “To compete at this level against teams they consider the best in the FCS, we get to prove the chance to prove that we belong.
A redshirt senior, Smith was one of two leading receivers who returned from the Rattlers’ 2019 season, when he averaged seven receptions and 105.4 receiving yards per game and recorded 1,159 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns total.
During the program’s hiatus from football due to the coronavirus pandemic, Simmons built up the team’s roster, adding 21 transfers with eight coming from Power 5 programs. This season, Smith (who ranks 30th in FCS in receptions per game) has continued to play a big role in the Rattlers' receiving corp known as the RAC Boys 2.0. The dynamic group, which specializes in earning “receiving yards after the catch,” also features David Manigo, Jah’Marae Sheread (55th in all-purpose yards and 15th in receiving touchdowns in FCS) and Chad Hunter, to name a few.
“All of us can catch a pass off a bubble screen and take [it] 60, 70 or 90 yards,” Smith says. “That’s what we do.
However, while the SLU defense allows nearly 473 yards of total offense and 32 points on average, the Lions pride themselves on gaining turnovers (tied for 25th in the FCS). Smith said the key to winning is to make consistent plays while not necessarily always looking for the big one.
“When their [Lions] opponents run or catch the ball, they swarm and they move fast,” Smith says. “We want to try to make the small plays first and the big plays when they come.”
Beyond the strong group of receivers, the Rattlers feature a quarterback in Rasean McKay who ranks fourth in the SWAC in passing yards, passing yards per game and passing touchdowns. They also have dynamic rushing attack behind the legs of Bishop Bonnett (who leads the SWAC with 934 rushing yards and five TDs) and Terrell Jennings (516 yards, five TDs).
FAMU will look to add a new chapter to its playoff history book in the first-ever matchup between the two programs. The SWAC has never won a playoff game, but the Rattlers won the first-ever Division I-AA (now referred to as the FCS) national title in ’78 as a member of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC). They've made seven playoff appearances, with a record of 5–6 in those games that dates back to the team’s championship season under legendary coach Rudy Hubbard and under former coach Billy Joe from ’96 to ‘01.
The Rattlers will face a tall task of slowing down reigning Walter Payton Award winner and Southland Conference Player of the Year Cole Kelley, who has thrown for 4,382 yards and 38 touchdowns while completing 74.2% of his passes. The senior also rushed for 442 yards and 16 touchdowns and holds the SLU’s single-season and career record for rushing touchdowns (33), total touchdowns, passing yards, passing touchdowns and total offense.
“They have arguably the top offensive NFL prospect in FCS football,” Simmons said. “He’s efficient and [the Lions’ offense] goes as he goes … So, we got to get ready for a 60-minute dog fight.”
As an offensive unit, the Lions rank first in scoring offense (48 points), total offense (567 yards) and first down offense, second in passing yards per game (413.7) and in the top ten for red-zone offense. Their production is backed by a strong offensive line, a trio of receivers in Austin Mitchell (1,035 receiving yards, nine touchdowns), Nolan Givan (464, five TDs) and Gage Larvadain (484, five TDs) and a running back in Taron Jones who poses a threat on the ground and in Southeastern Louisiana's passing attack.
Defensively, the Rattlers are up for the challenge. FAMU enters the game ranked fourth in the FCS in total defense (allowing 257.5 yards per game) and tied for eighth in the country in points allowed per game (15.09). The Rattlers also feature two Buck Buchanan Award finalists (most outstanding defensive player in FCS) in safety Markquese Bell and defensive end Isaiah Land—who sits atop FCS in tackles for a loss and sacks—and defensive backs Kendall and BJ Bohler.
As Smith and his teammates prepare for the opportunity of a lifetime, it comes after FAMU's rocky road restoring itself as a premier powerhouse in HBCU football.
When Simmons—who grew up roughly 30 minutes from FAMU’s campus in Quincy, Fla.—took the job as the Rattlers' coach in December 2017, the program had previously suffered academic violations, a lack of efficient recruiting and financial shortcomings that nearly shut down the football program. In addition, the program was forced to vacate wins from the ’17 season due to NCAA infractions.
This year, Phoenix Suns point guard and NBA All-Star Chris Paul announced that the second season of his docuseries Why Not Us, produced by ESPN, would highlight FAMU football. It will allow viewers to learn about the resilience of the Rattlers’ program under Simmons and see behind-the-scenes action of what it means to be a FAMU football player. Additionally, viewers will get a sense of the history of the football program, the culture and tradition of the school and the university’s esteemed “Marching 100” band.
For players like Smith, Paul’s series was not simply an eight-episode show highlighting how the football program has come to be where it is now. Why Not Us motivated him and other teammates to stay the course during the season, keeping their hope alive to embrace the opportunity they now have.
“The documentary serves as a reminder that our hard work is paying off,” Smith says. “So, like when we got selected for the playoffs, the first thing I thought about was, ‘Why not us?' Why not put us in the playoffs? We deserve it. We have waited for this moment. We came together as a team throughout the season and now we have the opportunity to do something special.”
As the Rattlers hope to shock the college football world with a victory for the SWAC, Sanders—who is a friend to Simmons—hopes FAMU gets the job done.
“This is another moment we’re going to stick a flag in the ground for HBCU football,” Sanders said. “I want them to win and to dominate.”
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