ORLANDO – Typically, a team’s success equates to beating the arch-rival and/or capturing a championship.
Florida A&M did neither in 2019. Nevertheless, the Rattlers redefined success this season by restoring glory to the program.
FAMU reached levels it hasn’t seen in over a decade despite Saturday’s 31-27 defeat to Bethune-Cookman here at Camping World Stadium.
The Rattlers went 9-2 and cracked the national rankings, climbing as high as No. 12 in the FCS poll. FAMU was also No. 1 in the black college football polls. The Rattlers posted the best mark in the MEAC at 8-1.
Normally, their record would’ve clinched a league title with an automatic berth in the Celebration Bowl. However, due to the self-imposed postseason ban for NCAA infractions from athletics-wide violations that occurred between the 2010-11 and 2016-17 academic years, the Rattlers are ineligible to play in next month’s bowl game.
As a result, North Carolina A&T will represent the conference in Atlanta.
Florida A&M head coach Willie Simmons has led the Rattlers to a national ranking and top-rate offensive stats in 2019. (Photo: Tori Schneider/Tallahassee Democrat)
In two seasons, FAMU coach Willie Simmons and his coaching staff have established a culture where „the standard is excellence.“
Simmons, a Quincy native, led FAMU to consecutive winning records. He is 15-7 at FAMU and 36-18 overall dating back to his time at Prairie View A&M.
During the Florida Blue Florida Classic postgame press conference Saturday, Simmons poignantly summarized what FAMU attained in 2019.
„Hard-fought football game between two state rivals. It got down to the end, we just didn’t make the plays we needed to get it done,“ he said.
„That doesn’t diminish what this team has accomplished this year. Nine wins and eight in the conference. I don’t care what anyone says, we’re MEAC champions. These guys have done a great job of bringing the tradition back to the program. I’m extremely grateful to them for that.“
FAMU had bookend games in Orlando this season. Both outings concluded with negative outcomes that couldn’t overshadow the program’s positive steps.
The first began with a 62-0 setback to then-No. 17 UCF. From that point on, the Rattlers rattled off nine consecutive wins. These victories were full of drama with thrilling finishes. Throughout the nine-game streak, five matchups were decided with less than three minutes on the clock.
During one stretch, FAMU outscored Morgan State, Delaware State and Howard 115-49. The Rattlers also defeated North Carolina A&T 34-31 in overtime in a game that was played on Sunday, Oct. 20 as a schedule revision due to Tropical Storm Nestor.
Along with the collective greatness, multiple Rattlers were showered with personal praise.
When he first came to FAMU, quarterback Ryan Stanley was full of untapped potential.
Now, the redshirt senior from Pembroke Pines in Broward County leaves as the school’s all-time leader in completions (694), attempts (1,149), yards (8,465) and touchdowns (63).
Stanley had top-flight FCS stats this year. He’s a front-runner for MEAC Offensive Player of the Year and All-American honors.
Although he had stellar numbers, Stanley’s drive was about the brotherhood in the locker room. He was dejected by the finale versus B-CU. Through his pain, Stanley also expressed pride in being a Rattler.
„This loss really hurts,“ he said. „I’m going to miss the guys I put the work in every day. I’m thankful to FAMU for giving me this opportunity. I’m blessed and had a great career.“
FAMU quarterback Ryan Stanley (14) dodges defenders as he runs down the field. The Rattlers lost to Bethune-Cookman Wildcats 31-27 in the Florida Classic on Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019. (Photo: Alicia Devine/Tallahassee Democrat)
One of Stanley’s frequent targets was wide receiver, Xavier Smith.
This duo served as the most prolific combo in the MEAC. Smith had a breakout year with 77 receptions for 1,159 yards with 11 touchdowns. He was top-10 in the nation in each category.
„I had a good year. I played decent, but there’s a lot of work do to,“ Smith said. „I did some things nobody did here in a long time.“
„I am going to work harder this offseason than any offseason before. You have to come back better. That’s what the great ones do.“
Just like Stanley, Smith is expected to receive a host of postseason awards. The speedy receiver is also among the candidates for MEAC Offensive Player of the Year.
WATCH: Rattlers quarterback Ryan Stanley and wide receiver Xavier Smith discuss their late-game heroics vs. N.C. Central on homecoming day.
Rory Sharrock, Tallahassee Democrat
Safety Markquese Bell transferred to FAMU in the offseason from Coffeyville Community College. Bell, a former four-star recruit, had a team-high five interceptions in his debut season on ‚The Hill.‘ He was also third on the team in tackles with 61.
The hard-hitting defensive back is expected to have more of a commanding presence next season.
However, Terry Jefferson and Elijah Richardson were the leaders on defense. Their roles included off-the-field matters. They held a high standard of excellence with their play and superiority in the classroom.
Richardson earned his first degree in May and is in pursuit of another bachelor’s. Jefferson is a two-time graduate. When he finishes school, he’ll have three FAMU degrees hanging on his wall.
FAMU linebacker Elijah Richardson goes through pregame drills versus Norfolk State on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. (Photo: Jacob Henderson)
In regards to football, they were first and second in tackles. Richardson had 60 and Jefferson racked up 59.
„My message to the team is to keep fighting,“ Richardson said during the postgame press conference of the Florida Classic. „The future is bright for them. I believe in coach Simmons. He changed the program.
„This is just the beginning and I’m proud of my team.“
The future of FAMU football is full of optimism.
RaSean McKay is the projected starter at quarterback. The former Godby High player filled in for an injured Stanley and threw the game-winning pass to Marcus Williams in overtime against the Aggies. He then started the next week at Morgan State.
McKay went 52 of 73 for 538 yards with six touchdowns on the season.
FAMU redshirt freshman RaSean McKay may once again start at quarterback this weekend versus Delaware State. During his first-ever start against Morgan State, 25 of 35 for 246 yards with a touchdown. (Photo: Rattler Productions)
Smith, Azende Rey, David Manigo, Chad Hunter and George Webb are the key returners at wide receiver.
Young will be more of a threat with a year under his belt at tight end.
Calvin Ashley should also elevate his status at right tackle.
The running game will again feature the three-main crew of Bishop Bonnet, Bo Kendrick and Jennings.
On defense, Richard Summers and Isiah Land will anchor the defensive line.
Linebacker Derrick Mayweather will continue to dominate the mid-level against the run and pass coverage. Cornerback Herman Jackson is expected to make a full recovery. He suffered a season-ending ACL injury in training camp.
Fellow Miami native Eric Smith is on the other side at cornerback. Smith showed a lot of promise this year and finished with 41 tackles.
Punter Chris Faddoul remains as a solid weapon. He was second in the country in average at 46 yards. When called upon, Faddoul will flip the field with regularity.
There’s also a sense of hope for FAMU with the hire of Kortne Gosha as the athletics director. The 31-year-old was introduced at an event on Saturday.
Simmons is confident in the direction of the program. His goal is the build upon this momentum through hard work and financial contributions. This is the platform to maintain an expected level of superiority.
„The season’s over, but we have to keep the excitement going,“ he said. „Fans have to continue to support and give. I told our guys we did the most with the least this year. These accomplished a lot without a lot to work with.“
„If FAMU nation wants to see us build and be a winner, which we’re capable of doing, than everyone has to give. And I know that’s what they’ll do for us.“
Follow FAMU beat writer Rory Sharrock on Twitter @rattlernews and @married2game1.