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Florida A&M Close to Rare, Historic FCS Playoff Berth

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This week the Florida A&M Rattlers cracked into the FCS Top 25 and could be on the verge of making the postseason field. Doing so would be significant in a number of ways.

North Carolina Central v Florida A&M Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

Florida A&M is in the midst of a terrific season down in Tallahassee but despite having an 8-2 overall record, the Rattlers have flown relatively under the radar this season, at least until now.

When the FCS released its updated rankings on Monday, FAMU saw its name appear on the list for the first time all season and now people are taking notice. If they are able to maintain such a spot for one more week, the Rattlers may make the postseason field and that would be huge for a team that usually finds itself on the outside looking in, oftentimes through no fault of their own.

Playing in the SWAC, a common misconception exists that programs like Florida A&M are not eligible for the FCS postseason because the conference opts to end its season with a championship game and forgo sending the league champion to the playoffs. What gets lost on many, however, is that a team who doesn't make the championship but is deemed worthy by the selection committee can still receive an at-large bid and that’s exactly where the Rattlers find themselves right now.

Conference foes Jackson State and Prairie View A&M have both already locked up spots in the SWAC title game and the winner is contractually obligated to take part in the Celebration Bowl against the MEAC champion. Because that game does not conclude until after the playoffs begin, the leagues do not send an automatic qualifier to the postseason.

The Rattlers, though, are in the unique position of still being able to qualify for the playoffs, a place that head coach Willie Simmons feels his team deserves to be. “If you can find many teams that have one FCS loss by one-point and FBS loss — are there 23 better than us? 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.”

Winners of seven straight, FAMU now prepares for the biggest game of their season against in-state rival Bethune-Cookman. The Wildcats and the Rattlers square off in this rivalry game annually but this year’s edition of the Florida Classic will have a ton at stake for the Rattlers. A win would give them a pretty solid case of snagging one of those at-large spots.

Bethune-Cookman at Florida A&M
The Florida Classic is one of the most storied rivalries in college football.
Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Barring a victory, FAMU would end the season with a 9-2 overall record and give them an eight-game winning streak. Those two losses would be to Jackson State (who’s only lost one game) and FBS South Florida. Those certainly aren’t resume-killing defeats. They’ve also won five games this season by more than 20 points. So with that kind of pedigree, what could possibly be going against them if the opportunity presents itself? Unfortunately, history.

HBCUs like Florida A&M don’t get the recognition of other programs that play at the Division I level, whether that be from fans or the committee itself. In fact, the SWAC does not have a representative on the selection committee and some have theorized that is why teams such as the Rattlers seldom get the opportunity to snag one of the 13 at-large playoff spots in the tournament.

In 2015, a controversy was stirred when Prairie View A&M was left out of the playoffs in spite of an 8-2 record. Coincidentally, that team too was coached by Simmons and many felt that their status as an HBCU did not give them the leverage needed to earn a spot in the field.

“I think it’s a general misunderstanding for a lot of voters who don’t understand and appreciate HBCU football,” Simmons said in a press conference on Monday, “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 v South Florida
Willie Simmons is in his third year as head coach at Florida A&M.
Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

If this year’s Rattlers’ team is awarded a spot in the tournament it would be of historical significance on many fronts but first and foremost, for HBCU football as a whole. Not since a 9-2 North Carolina A&T team nabbed an at-large bid in 2016 has an HBCU been in the FCS playoffs and the only HBCU to win a playoff game this century was Tennessee State in 2013.

A postseason appearance would be equally as significant for the program itself. FAMU has not appeared in the playoffs since 2001 and the SWAC has not seen a playoff representative since 1997.

The Rattlers haven’t won a postseason game since 1999 when they went all the way to the semifinals. But perhaps most notable is the fact that Florida A&M is actually claimed the first Division I-AA (now FCS) championship back in 1978 by defeating UMass. To date, they are the only HBCU to win an I-AA national title.

The history of FCS football cannot be told without the Rattlers and now this year’s team has the chance to write another meaningful chapter in that history. They’ll need a win on Saturday, of course, but that isn’t far-fetched. There will still be things out of their control but the opportunity is as great as it’s been in a long while for FAMU.