Florida A&M coach Willie Simmons
Photo: Florida A&M Athletics

Florida A&M enters the upcoming Florida Classic against Bethune-Cookman — annually the biggest game of the season — with a lot more on the line than in-state bragging rights.

Winners of seven straight, the Rattlers will play its regular season finale with a realistic opportunity to make a case to earn an at-large bid barring a win over the Wildcats on Saturday.

On Monday, Florida A&M got a bit of good news when it entered the FCS Coaches Poll for the first time this season at No. 25. It also was ranked No. 23 in the STATS Perform FCS Top 25 Poll.

The move into the polls, combined with its current hot streak, makes the Rattlers an interesting contender for playoff consideration.

“If you can find many teams that have one FCS loss by one-point and FBS loss — are there 23 better than us?” Simmons asked in response to a question about what his pitch would be to the FCS playoff selection committee. “I think our resume speaks for itself. You can talk about our strength of schedule, but that is from people who don’t watch SWAC football.”

At 8-2, Florida A&M, explained Stats Perform FCS senior editor Craig Haley, finds itself among “a group of 12 teams” for the final at-large spots.

Among them are the likes of VMI, William & Mary, Mercer, Kennesaw State and Stephen F. Austin.

And despite the Rattlers not possessing a so-called signature win this season, winning eight Division I games and going unbeaten in true road contests gives them “a real shot” to make the field, Haley told HBCU Sports.

“They’re in the mix. It usually comes down to a half-dozen teams for those last two or three spots,” he said. “They have solid wins. They can’t hang their hat on having a win over North Dakota State, but at the same time there are some good points to be had when you win on the road.”

Photo: SWAC

Haley also suggested that Florida A&M could be an attractive draw because of the NFL-caliber talent on its roster that includes stud defensive back Markquese Bell, FCS sack leader Isaiah Land and one of the best wide receiver corps in the country.

Also read: Florida A&M athletic director makes ‘push’ for FCS playoff berth; suggests expanded Celebration Bowl

A long-running theory is that the SWAC not maintaining a representative on the FCS playoff committee doesn’t give the league leverage it needs to propel a deserving team into one of those 24 slots.

Many believe that circumstance is what kept a then-8-2 Prairie View team coached by Simmons out of the field in 2015, though Haley dismissed the notion, explaining that league representatives aren’t in the room when teams from their conferences are being evaluated by the committee.

“It has a minimal kind of effect,” he said. “I think the committee does a better job than most people think.”

What may carry greater weight against Florida A&M is the SWAC’s 0-19 record all-time in the FCS playoffs, the conference’s champion contractually obligated to compete in the Celebration Bowl, and league schedule not concluded until after the postseason has begun.

“It’s kind of tough in most years that a second-place team didn’t win its division might be the second-best (HBCU) overall, but maybe perceived as the third-best team (due to missing the Celebration Bowl) even though that’s not necessarily the case,” he said.

Simmons, who spoke to the media on Monday, suggested such misaligned perceptions make it difficult for HBCUs to earn at-large bids.

“I think there is a general misunderstanding, first and foremost,” he said about voters and committee members undervaluing Black college programs because neither the SWAC or MEAC holds an automatic bid into the tournament.

“I think it’s a general misunderstanding for a lot of voters who don’t understand and appreciate HBCU football, and it’s part of the reason we don’t get the national recognition that we do. I think it’s a lack of respect for the level of play in the SWAC and MEAC.”

Florida A&M does at least have one proponent in its corner in the person of Arkansas-Pine Bluff head coach Doc Gamble, who made his own case for the Rattlers.

“You just have to look at their record. They have one loss to a (SWAC East) champion in Jackson State and one FBS loss,” said Gamble. “I don’t know what else they can do. They have a resume that’s good, and they’ve played good football throughout the year.”


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