Date: Saturday, December 16th
Time: 12:00 PM (ET)
The Quick Hits
For the first time ever, Florida A&M are SWAC champions and their reward is a trip to the Celebration Bowl. The Rattlers (11-1) have put together a season to remember down in Tallahassee and are looking to put a nice and tidy bow on it this weekend. FAMU hasn’t lost an FCS game this year and, in all 11 of their wins, have come away pretty comfortably on top. One more victory on Saturday would give the program its first HBCU national title since 2001 and first since they joined the SWAC back in 2021.
Standing in their way will be another team making its first appearance in the game; the Howard Bison. The Bison (6-5) earned their way here after pulling off a major upset of MEAC-favorite North Carolina Central back in November. It sent the Eagles to the FCS playoffs and punched Howard’s ticket to Atlanta. Record-wise it hasn’t been the best season for the Bison but a win here would certainly erase any bad feelings and cement 2023 as one to remember.
Fourth-year head coach Larry Scott will lead Howard. Since taking over in 2020, Scott has won 14 games and has gone 9-8 overall in MEAC play. The Bison have seen steady improvement each season under Scott and this year’s six wins mark the most since he got the gig. Scott has two MEAC titles under his belt (last year’s team was named co-champions alongside NC Central but did not have the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Eagles).
On the other sideline Willie Simmons will be calling the shots for Florida A&M. Simmons was named FAMU’s head coach in 2018 and has turned the Rattlers organization around. He’s 44-13 in his five seasons at the helm and has only lost five conference games during his tenure. Simmons has the Rattlers ranked #10 in the current STATS FCS polls and finished fifth in the voting for this season’s Eddie Robinson Award. He will claim his first HBCU national title with a win here.
Howard Offense vs Florida A&M Defense
Quinten Williams will sling the ball for Howard. Williams, a grad senior, has thrown for 2,158 yards and 16 touchdowns this season. He is very good at taking care of the ball, having thrown only four interceptions all year. Williams has also run for 110 yards and five touchdowns. He can make plays happen all over the place if he has the time and that means Florida A&M’s front will need to be active.
Anthony Dunn Jr. will play a major role in that department for the Rattlers. The athletic sophomore has been tenacious on the line this year, sacking opposing signal-callers eight times and registering 12.5 tackles for loss. Dunn also has eight QB hits and even has a defended pass in there. If Howard’s offensive line, which has surrendered just 18 sacks this year, isn’t up to snuff it could be a heyday for Dunn.
Jarrett Hunter and Eden James will see most of the work on the ground for the Bison. Hunter has eight rushing scores this year and a team-high 133 carries that have gone for 602 yards. James averages 5.8 yards per run (99 touches) and has two scores. They are a one-two punch that will look to evade FAMU’s talented linebackers.
Isaiah Major has been a wrecking ball for the Rattlers in the middle. He has 100 tackles this year and is credited with two turnovers (one fumble recovery and one interception). Major and fellow linebacker Johnny Chaney Jr. have combined for seven QB hits and 18.5 tackles for loss this year.
On the outside senior receiver Kasey Hawthorne has been the go-to guy for Williams in the passing game. Hawthorne has only played in ten games this year but still leads the squad with 504 receiving yards and five touchdowns.
Florida A&M Offense vs Howard Defense
Quarterback Jeremy Moussa will lead the FAMU offense. He’s put up career numbers this year, throwing for 2,604 yards and 19 touchdowns. Moussa won’t run often but he does have two rushing scores as well. He has posted five games this year in which he’s thrown for more than 250 yards and he’s only tossed eight picks on the season.
Moussa will spread the ball around to several different targets but he goes to receivers Jah’Marae Sheread and Marcus Riley more than anyone. Riley leads the team with 570 yards and five touchdowns while Sheread has the most catches this year with 46. Sheread is one of five Rattlers players with at least two touchdown catches.
For Howard this means guys like freshman DB Kaleb Gallop will have their work cut out for them. Gallop has a team-best three interceptions this season and has forced two fumbles from the back end. He and fellow DB Perrin Clayton have combined for 7 pass breakups this year. They will likely be tasked with covering Sheread and Riley.
FAMU’s run game will center largely on Terrell Jennings and Jaquez Yant. Jennings has broke the goal line nine times this year and has 605 rush yards. Yant is right behind him with seven scores and 333 yards. The pair help open up the passing game when they get rolling and if the Bison want a chance here, they’re going to need to not let that happen.
Up front Darrian Brokenburr and Jamel Stewart will look to wreak havoc in the backfield. Brokenburr has 4.5 sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss this year along with three QB hits and a fumble recovery. Stewart has 2.5 sacks, five QB hits and a forced fumble. They’ll need to be on their best, though, against Moussa and the bruising Rattlers offense.
The Special Teams
The Rattlers will use the speedy Riley on kick returns. He has one touchdown this season in the runback game and is averaging 29 yards per runback. He, however, isn’t necessarily the only option FAMU has on kickoffs. Nine other players besides Riley have taken a kick return this year but Riley has the lone score. On punt returns it will be Sheread. He has run back 16 punts this year for 221 total yards.
Cameron Gillis is Florida A&M’s kicker. The grad senior is 10-of-13 on his field goal tries this year with a long of 44. Gillis, who transferred in from Stetson, has not missed a kick from under 30 yards but has had two field goals blocked this year. Trey Wilhoit will punt for the Rattlers. He is averaging 44.2 yards per boot and has 14 of at least 50 yards this year.
Howard will have sophomore Aaron Bickerton handle both kicks and punts. Bickerton has not missed a field goal this season (7-of-7) and is putting up nearly 41 yards per punt. He has pinned opponents inside their own 20-yard line 13 times and has forced 15 fair catches. It’s difficult to get a return off Bickerton to say the least.
Ian Wheeler has the Bison’s only kick return TD this season and he will take most of the action on kickoffs. He is averaging 26.4 yards per kick return this year. Jamarr Ebron is likely to take punt returns. The freshman has fielded nine punts this year for a total of 63 yards. He does not have a touchdown yet.
Florida A&M will take advantage of the moment and they will flex their muscles on Howard throughout. The Rattlers will strike first and not look back. Moussa will have a big day passing thanks in large part to Riley. Yant will run tough and help FAMU put the game away in the late stages. Howard will have its moments and share of big plays but they will be far outnumbered by Florida A&M. The Rattlers will be taking home the Celebration Bowl crown for the first time ever.
Score Prediction: Florida A&M: 30 - Howard: 16