Southern hasn’t played Florida A&M since 2012, but it will take a lot more than seven years to erode the familiarity the two programs have with each other.
The longest non-conference rivalry among HBCU teams, the schools have played 61 times — 60 according to Florida A&M. The intensity goes well beyond the programs, into the bands, fan bases and student bodies.
Few understand it better than Rattlers coach Willie Simmons. He remembers the rivalry from his days as a high school All-American quarterback at James A. Shanks in Tallahassee, Florida, and he’s game planned the Jaguars as an assistant at Alcorn State and head coach at Prairie View.
To Simmons, playing Southern (1-2) on Saturday in a 5 p.m. kickoff at Bragg Stadium in Tallahassee is going to be like a reunion of combatants so similar they can hardly not respect each other.
“Two historic programs, great coaches, great players, NFL players, Hall of Famers, you name it,” said Simmons, whose team is 1-1. “It’s probably the two most loyal fan bases. It’s great to renew this rivalry with a home and home.
“This will be a more accurate depiction of what this (FAMU) team is capable of. We both have transfers, all conference caliber players, long tenured staffs. This is Dawson’s (Odums) seventh or eighth year at Southern. It’s my second but we’ve gone against each other seven times before. We’re so familiar with each other’s staffs. This game will go down to who prepares the best, who doesn’t beat themselves and who controls all the outside stuff that comes with a game of this magnitude.”
The last time the teams met, it was Odums' second game as interim coach and Southern scored twice in the fourth quarter for a 21-14 victory. The Rattlers lead the series 34-26-1, but the games are usually close given the strength and winning traditions of both programs.
“When you talk about rivalries, there’s not many like this one,” Odums said. “The gap creates more anticipation when you renew.”
Both coaches expect the game to be a much more accurate measuring stick as they prepare for their respective conference schedules. FAMU is coming off a 57-20 victory over Division II Fort Valley State after being routed 62-0 by Central Florida, the No. 15-ranked FBS team.
Southern routed NAIA Edward Waters 61-0 after losing to Group of Five Memphis, 55-24, in its past two games.
Saturday’s game will be highlighted by a collision of quarterbacks of different stripes. Fifth-year senior Ryan Stanley is a pocket passer who is 973 yards from breaking the school career yardage record. Southern’s Ladarius Skelton has yet to play a full game for various reasons, but could be a ticking time bomb ready to explode on the Rattler defense after a strong finish last season.
Stanley was 20 of 31 for 275 yards and three touchdowns last week after going seven of 24 in the opener against UCF. Simmons is counting on his experience to get the offense on track against a veteran Jaguar defense.
“He’s played a ton of ball games,” Simmons said. “He’s had stellar games and subpar games. UCF was one of those subpar games. In typical Ryan fashion, he came out the next week and performed well.
“It’s about the little things. When he makes the right read, when he throws the ball on time, when he trusts the system, he’s one of the best quarterbacks in this league. He gets in trouble when he presses and predetermines where he’s going with the ball. We’ve talked with him a lot about that. He knows the offense. He can get up and draw every play in our offense. It’s a matter of executing like we do every single day. Put it all together on Saturday.”
The Rattlers will probably be without starting running back Eddie Tillman, whose hip injury might end up being season ending. Azende Rey is the Rattlers’ top receiver with 10 catches for 87 yards and two touchdowns.
Simmons is wary of Skelton, whom he says is a “Power 5 type athlete.” Skelton and the Southern passing game struggled last week to the point it was shut down in favor of the running attack which produced 407 yards.
“He’s very dynamic; he can run the ball, a big, strong, physical guy,” Simmons said. “I hate to compare but (Oklahoma QB) Jalen Hurts and (Arizona QB) Khalil Tate come to mind because he’s a physically imposing guy who can run the ball. We’ve seen three different defensive schemes, so we have to be prepared for anything. They’ve always been known for having one of the best special teams units.
“They have an explosive offense, a very dynamic quarterback, talented skill guys and a veteran offensive line and a stout defense. The same can be said about us. We have two evenly matched football teams that are going toe-to-toe. Typically, it comes down to a few plays here or there. The home field hopefully will give us a huge advantage.”