Standing together on the field inside Hard Rock Stadium prior to the much-anticipated Orange Blossom Classic, Willie Simmons and Deion Sanders acknowledged that the outcome would likely decide not only the SWAC East but a possible FCS postseason opportunity.
“Coach Prime and I talked pregame, and we said on the 50-yard line that the winner of this game would more than likely win the (SWAC) East and the other one would be on the outside looking in,” Simmons said Monday during the SWAC media availability.
Jackson State outlasted Florida A&M 7-6 that day in Miami, ultimately ending realistic aspirations that the Tigers would be caught in the standings after the head-to-head loss.
Hours after the game, Simmons — who earned a sports marketing degree at Clemson — understood that he had to immediately sell the Rattlers as a worthy postseason qualifier.
“About 9 o’clock p.m. on September 5th after we lost to Jackson,” he explained in response to a question regarding when he initially shifted focus to the playoffs. “We knew after that one-point loss that it would be an uphill battle to get to the SWAC championship game.”
There then was a conversation between Simmons and athletic director Kortne Gosha commenced about pinpointing when to petition the Division I Football Championship Committee.
However, there were still 10 games left to play in the season and FAMU couldn’t afford many more setbacks.
Simmons and Gosha both agreed that if the Rattlers were to beat an Alabama A&M club that went unbeaten in the spring en route to a SWAC and Black college national championship on Oct. 16, it would give them the credibility they desired.
We said, ‘if we win this game, let’s start the conversation,'” he said.
But things almost didn’t go as planned. The Rattlers fell behind 28-10 to the Bulldogs before rallying to score 25 of the next 28 points, including 19 in the fourth quarter, to pull off a miracle win in Huntsville.
Its most important triumph of the season was part of what is now an 8-game winning streak.
It all started with Gosha saying during an interview days after the Alabama A&M win that the program was going to “make a push” to the selection committee. Simmons touted the team’s winning streak and how its only real blemish was that one-point loss to a ranked Jackson State.
The program’s ‘Leave no Doubt’ mantra by winning — along with a bit of politicking — helped, to say the least.
“After that (AAMU) win, we started that conversation nationally and I think that had a huge impact on us getting in,” said Simmons.