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Florida A&M heads into Orange Blossom Classic hungry to achieve high expectations

Projected to win the SWAC East, Rattlers will open their season against Jackson State

Since Florida A&M and football coach Willie Simmons joined the Southwestern Athletic Conference in 2021, their primary goal every season has been to win the conference and earn a berth in the Cricket Celebration Bowl.

This season, after being projected to win the SWAC East in the conference preseason poll, the Rattlers will take a fresh step toward their goal on Sunday when they face reigning two-time SWAC champion Jackson State, now led by coach T.C. Taylor, at the Orange Blossom Classic in Miami Gardens, Florida.

“It’s a conference game. It’s a divisional game, and all of those things play a huge part in determining who represents this great conference and SWAC championship game and then, ultimately, the Cricket Celebration Bowl,” Simmons said Monday during the SWAC media call. “This is a big game for us.”

The winner of the Orange Blossom Classic has gone on to represent the SWAC East in the conference championship game the last two years. Although Jackson State is the reigning champion, the Tigers have turned over more than 50% of their roster for this season. However, Simmons believes they’re still a good team.

The Tigers won their first victory of the season Aug. 26, defeating South Carolina State Bulldogs in the MEAC/SWAC Challenge in Atlanta.

“They’re a team that plays hard, [an] athletic team. … Obviously, they lost some really good players, but they have some really good players. Now, T.C. Taylor’s a great coach,” Simmons said. “I don’t think anyone thought that they would drop off tremendously.

“I think anyone with any sense and football knowledge would assume that Jackson State will be a very formidable football team. We knew that going in and just what we saw Saturday was confirmation of that.”

Simmons is leaning on a veteran group of Rattlers — quarterback Jeremy Moussa, the SWAC preseason offensive player of the year, senior linebacker Isaiah Major and senior defensive lineman Gentle Hunt — to help guide the team during its season opener.

“I think our guys understand the magnitude of the game. Whether you call that pressure or not, I’m not sure. You know, for us, pressure can bust pipes or it can make diamonds, and our job is to make sure that it doesn’t overwhelm us,” Simmons said. “With a veteran leadership group like we have … we got to go in and play our best.”

Despite the preseason expectations, Moussa said, ultimately what matters is what the team does on the field.

“Our goal is a Celebration Bowl championship,” Moussa said. “[The Orange Blossom Classic] is not any harder than any other game that we’re gonna play, you know. We attack each game the same way. This one just has a little added, you know, emphasis on it, because it’s Game 1 and because it’s a divisional game, right? … We have to win the SWAC East, and this is step one to doing that.”

In response to an unauthorized locker-room rap video shoot by rapper Real Boston Richey in July, Simmons briefly suspended all football activities and the university opened an investigation into the incident. However, since taking over the program in 2018, Simmons has guided the Rattlers through several other controversies.

“We have offseason issues every year. Some of them just aren’t national. You know, again, it’s just about finding ways to grow, continue to learn,” Simmons said. “That’s one of the lessons that we really talk to guys about all the time. So, even when we have disappointments, even when we have mishaps, it’s about our response, how are we gonna address it, how we’re gonna deal with it and grow from it.”

In 2019, the NCAA sanctioned Florida A&M for allowing ineligible athletes to compete. Florida A&M also self-imposed postseason bans for the 2019-2020 academic year for six varsity sports, including football. Despite finishing with the best record in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (9-2 overall, 7-1 MEAC), the bans prevented the Rattlers from competing in the Celebration Bowl.

Last season, days before its season opener against North Carolina, FAMU was notified that 25 players had been ruled academically ineligible. The Rattlers still finished the season with a 9-2 record (7-1 SWAC), narrowly missing a berth in the FCS playoffs.

Tiffani-Dawn Sykes officially started in her position as Florida A&M’s vice president and director of intercollegiate athletics in January. Since the ineligibility problems a year ago the athletic compliance office has been combined with the university’s compliance office and positions also were added. Instead of having one compliance official responsible for all varsity student-athletes, Florida A&M now has a compliance office consisting of seven people who help oversee the progress of all student-athletes.

“We’ve dedicated times throughout the year that we meet immediately after grades posting and identify every student-athlete who’s eligible, every student-athlete who’s deficient, and what they need to do in order to regain eligibility,” Sykes said. “So we’ve carved out a week at the end of spring grades posting [and] summer grades posting to make sure that we’re able to communicate that to our student-athletes, so they have an opportunity to rectify it.”

When Sykes reinstated football team activities in late July, she gave details about the investigation and discussed the importance of protecting Florida A&M’s brand.

“I’m gonna continue to advocate for our student-athletes but also just highlight branding and things that [Florida A&M] really don’t want associated with our brand and how that ties into the thought process of name, image and likeness,” Sykes said. “And the impact that they can have on particularly their NIL, because I want to advocate for our alumni, small business owners and local business owners, national business owners, to engage in the NIL space with our student-athletes.”

Earlier this month, Real Boston Richey agreed to take down the music video. On Monday, Sykes told Andscape the investigation is still ongoing when asked whether individual student-athletes would be reprimanded for their participation in the video.

With that controversy seemingly behind them, players are focused on the first game of the season. Each time the Rattlers have faced offseason adversity, they have rebounded, finishing with three consecutive nine-win seasons (2019, 2021 and 2022).

Despite losing the last two Orange Blossom Classic matchups against the Tigers, including a 59-3 defeat last year, Simmons doesn’t plan on changing his team’s scheme too much.

“So we’re gonna do some things a little differently, you know, not get too far away from who we are because we’ve been successful,” Simmons said. “We won nine games three years in a row now, so the formula is there.

“We just have to figure out how to maybe do what we’ve done at the end of the season, where we’ve had winning streaks, and get ready to do that the first game.”

Liner Notes

2023 Orange Blossom Classic
When: 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 3
Where: Hard Rock Stadium, Miami Gardens, Florida
Watch: ESPN
Information: www.orangeblossomclassic.com

Mia Berry is the senior HBCU writer for Andscape and covers everything from sports to student-led protests. She is a Detroit native (What up Doe!), long-suffering Detroit sports fan and Notre Dame alumna who randomly shouts, "Go Irish."