In late October Florida A&M’s football program was touted as the best team in the MEAC. FAMU had an undefeated conference record and a chip on its shoulder.
Now, only a month later, the conversation has changed. And not in a way that FAMU fans can like.
The Rattlers finished the season with a three-game losing streak to finish third in the MEAC, their early season success nowhere in sight.
What happened to the team that went to Greensboro and turned back perennial power North Caroline A&T on the way to a 5-0 start in the MEAC? What happened to a FAMU team that seemed destined to go to the Celebration Bowl?
Through eight games, the Rattlers seemed like they were unstoppable in league play. They were averaging an astounding 32.6 points per conference game, and only allowing their MEAC opponents to score 10.2 points per game. The degree of difficulty was just as impressive during the Rattlers’ hot streak. Their five game win streak included wins against the 2016 MEAC champs North Carolina Central (the game was in North Carolina), the 2017 MEAC champions North Carolina A&T (also in North Carolina) and the Morgan State Bears.
The game against Morgan State was particularly important because the Bears had upset NCA&T earlier in the season and the Rattlers were coming off of a bye week, creating the perfect storm for a “trap game” (a game in which a team that is favored to win by a huge margin loses due to underestimating an opponent). The Rattlers won though, and with a 5-0 conference record there seemed to be very little that could stop FAMU from winning the MEAC title.
Then the Howard game happened.
“I think going into the Howard game, we kind of overlooked them, thinking that we'd just kind of walk in there and they'd lay down for us and we, you know, punch our tickets to the Celebration Bowl,” said FAMU head coach Willie Simmons after their season finale against Bethune-Cookman.
FAMU’s ninth game of the season was against Howard University in Washington D.C., and a win against the Bison meant FAMU was mathematically a lock to win the MEAC title. If what coach Simmons said was true, and the Rattlers truly overlooked the Bison, then it was that mentality that cost them the game, and helped start the beginning of the end of their MEAC title run.
The Rattlers lost to Howard 31-23 and one of the Rattlers’ greatest weaknesses was revealed, defending against dual-threat quarterbacks.
"We didn't do a good job of containing Caylin Newton. This wasn't the best showing by our defense against the run. On offense, too many missed assignments, mental errors and dropped balls on third down," Simmons said after the Howard game.
This deadly combination of mental mistakes and failure to be disciplined when defending running attacks led by dual-threat QBs continued the following Saturday in the South Carolina State game, and the Rattlers would lose yet again, this time in their last home game of the season 44-21.
Even though the SC State game might have hurt their pride, it did not count against their conference record, and the Rattlers still had a chance to win the MEAC title with a victory over B-CU at the Florida Classic.
Oftentimes in rivalry games, players will make mistakes they would not usually make due to the importance of the game and how much a win would mean to the team’s fan base. For FAMU players in particular, that pressure was multiplied drastically, as their MEAC title hopes, a seven-year losing streak to B-CU and school pride were all on the line. The game was a huge moment for the Rattlers, and the pressure seemed to get to them. The Rattlers started making numerous mistakes, like allowing a 99-yard touchdown run in the third quarter after doing pretty well defending the run up to that point, or the two late interceptions thrown by FAMU quarterback Ryan Stanley that ended the game.
FAMU lost that game 33-19, ending its season and any Celebration Bowl hopes.
“I think one of the biggest things is that we kind of got away from our one-game-at-a-time mentality,” said Simmons. “I think we kind of started to look ahead, people started talking about booking hotels in Atlanta and what it would look like to be in Atlanta for a week and all those things, and that's not who we were, that's not who we say we're going to be. We say we're going to focus on the little things, and we kind of got away from that, and that's my fault.”
What happened to the team that went 5-0 in the MEAC? What happened to a FAMU team that seemed destined to go to the Celebration Bowl? According to their coach, they got caught up in how good they were doing. They were not used to winning, and once they got a taste of it, they lost focus and couldn’t fix their weaknesses. They started making mistakes, they started losing and they never recovered.
Luckily, this is not the end of the story for the Rattlers, as next year serves as a chance for the players to redeem themselves and return to form.
“We (were) close. We all come back next year. So we just got to do it, go back to work,” said junior receiver Marcus Williams. “(We’ve) got to do it next year. It's bad we couldn't do it this year, but (we’ll) get back to work ASAP.
“FAMU, we're going to get some new people, stay close, get even closer, and just stick together the whole way,” Williams added.