By Anthony McClean, Editor In Chief Emeritus
NEW HAVEN — For the first time in a few seasons, there’s cause for some cautious optimism regarding Florida A&M football. While the Rattlers have struggled (15-42) since 2012, last year’s 4-7 finish (4-4 in the MEAC) could prove to be a turning point for head coach Alex Wood.
The Rattlers open their 2017 football campaign Saturday at noon ET when they host Texas Southern (4-7, 4-5 SWAC in 2016) in the inaugural Jake Gaither Classic at Bragg Memorial Stadium.
When Wood took over in 2015, he inherited a FAMU program that was going through APR issues with the NCAA and a squad that suffered through a 3-9 campaign under two different head coaches during the previous season.
After struggling through a 1-10 mark during his first season, Wood would gradually see some progress a year later. One of the Rattlers’ biggest wins in 2016 was a 31-14 win over Hampton on Homecoming.
Now for the first time in over five years, the Rattlers are eligible for a MEAC crown and any postseason rewards that go with it. The MEAC head coaches have tabbed FAMU to finish sixth in their preseason poll.
Wood has 14 returning starters (7 offense, 7 defense) from last year’s team including nine preseason All-MEAC selections. Senior wideout Brandon Norwood, a first team selection, had a team-high 51 catches for 458 yards and four touchdowns a year ago.
Defensively, senior ends Elijah Price and Calvin Darville combined for over 80 tackles (20 for losses) and seven sacks last season. They’ll be going against a Texas Southern squad that doubled its season win total from a year ago.
The Tigers made a two-game improvement under the direction of coach Michael Haywood, good for fourth in a strong Western Division. Offensively, the Tigers’ main focus is to replace Averion Hurts at signal-caller.
Jay Christophe is set for the task, and while he played only one game, he flashed potential against rival Prairie View in throwing for 112 yards and a score while rushing for 46 more.
Defensively, the Tigers are led by linebacker Sean Jones, an All-SWAC First Team Preseason selection. Jones made 77 stops (10 for loss) to go with three sacks in 2016 and should be a top defender in the conference this season.
Along with top returning tackler Archie Rice (84 tackles) and top ballhawk Dondre Dobbins – who posted 60 tackles to go with a team-high three picks – anchoring the secondary, TSU has cornerstones to build around.
This weekend’s game will also give the FAMU faithful a chance to celebrate its historic past. Not only will the Rattlers open the season at home for the first time since 2011, FAMU will also honor three of their national black college championship teams at halftime.
The 1947, 1957, and 1977 football teams will be recognized. In addition, the undefeated 1977 Rattlers (11-0), under the leadership of Rudy Hubbard, will be honored on the field at the game. Hubbard’s team was the only NCAA team in any division to go undefeated in 1977. The game marks the 40th Anniversary of their unblemished season and the last undefeated team in FAMU history.
The game will also feature a battle of two of the best bands in the country. FAMU’s famed “Marching 100” will square off against TSU’s “Ocean of Soul,” in what is sure to be a great “5th Quarter” performance.
FAMU leads the all-time series 9-2 against Texas Southern. It’s the first meeting between the two schools since a 20-7 win by the Rattlers in 1968. TSU’s last win came in 1965, a 34-21 victory
Which head coach led FAMU to its first undefeated season in school history?
(Answer comes at the end of the story)
SWAC ANNOUNCES 2017 FOOTBALL TV SCHEDULE
The Southwestern Athletic Conference has released its 2017 football television schedule which includes 23 contests that will spread across 10 different networks.
All 10 of the member institutions will be featured on either the ESPN family of networks, ABC, Fox Sports Network, AT&T Sports Net, Peachtree TV, Stadium TV, beIN, the local CBS affiliate WHNT in Huntsville, or the NBC Sports Network. All games are available in standard high-definition.
Among some of the highlighted contests is Saturday’s Jake Gaither Classic.
Southern University will open their season on Sunday, Sept. 3 in the 13th annual MEAC/SWAC Challenge when the Jaguars host South Carolina State at Ace W. Mumford Stadium. The opener will be known as the Battle on the Bluff in Baton Rouge, La. Kickoff will air live at 1:30 p.m. CT on ESPN2.
Four days following at 6:30 p.m. CT on ESPNU, Prairie View A&M will be featured on the first Thursday night football match up on Sept. 7 when it hosts STATS FCS No. 3 ranked Sam Houston State of the Southland Conference for a 6:30 p.m. kick.
In week three, Jackson State travels to take on the defending SWAC Champions and No. 21 Grambling State on the newly installed artificial turf at Eddie G. Robinson Memorial Stadium Sept. 16 on ESPN3 at 6 p.m.
Alabama State third-year head coach Brian Jenkins hosts defending SWAC Eastern Division Champion Alcorn State for a Thursday night showdown on Oct. 5 on ESPNU at 6:30 p.m. CT. The 76th Magic City Classic between Alabama A&M and Alabama State will take place in Birmingham, Ala. on Oct. 28 on ESPN3 with a time to be determined. The game will be tape delayed for a broadcast on ESPNU as well. Alabama A&M defeated Alabama State in a one-point overtime thriller in last year’s edition of the game.
SWAC Western Division rivals clash when Grambling State and Southern square off in New Orleans, La. for the Bayou Classic on the NBC Sports Network at 4 p.m. on November 25. The teams finished No. 1 and No. 2 in the SWAC West Division standings a year ago with the division title being decided in this game last season.
The postseason starts with the final edition of the SWAC Football Championship in Houston, Texas on Saturday, Dec. 2 at NRG Stadium. The SWAC Championship game began in 1999 and will forgo the game starting in 2018. The Final Judgement will pit the traditional East and West Division Champions against one another and will be available to also watch on ESPNU. Kickoff time is set for 3:30 p.m.
The TV line up concludes with the Celebration Bowl Saturday, December 16, at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Ga. The multi-purpose retractable roof stadium serves as the home of the Atlanta Falcons of the National Football League (NFL) and Atlanta United FC of Major League Soccer (MLS). The state-of-the-art stadium is set to open on Aug. 26 when the Falcons host the Arizona Cardinals in an exhibition game. It is also scheduled to serve as the hosts of Super Bowl LIII in 2019. Kickoff for the Celebration Bowl is set for 11:00 a.m. CT on ABC.
In 1938, William “Big Bill” Bell led the Rattlers to an 8-0-0 record. The 1938 team brought home FAMU’s first national championship, with a climactic 9-7 win over Kentucky State in the Orange Blossom Classic. Those seven points were the first given up all season, as the Rattlers scored seven straight shutouts in the regular season.
MEDIA NOTE: Saturday’s Jake Gaither Classic will be broadcast live on ESPNU. You can also listen to the game live on KTSU 90.9 FM at http://streamdb4web.securenetsystems.net/v5/KTSUFM and KHBX 96.1 FM at http://www.961jamz.com/
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