FAMU FOOTBALL: Just the Facts
No. 22 Florida A&M (9-2, 7-1 SWAC) at No. 18 Southeastern Louisiana (8-3, 2-5 SLC)
When: Saturday, 7 p.m. (EST) – Strawberry Stadium
Live Stream/Radio: ESPN+/Rattler Sports Network/90.5 WANM-FM
No. 22 Florida A&M makes its second trip to the Pelican State this season. This time around, it's for bigger stakes as Rattlers face No. 18 Southeastern Louisiana to open the FCS playoffs.
Saturday's ballgame is the first-ever meeting between the Rattlers and Lions.
This is one of the prime matchups for the first round.
FAMU has won eight in a row. It has the eighth-ranked defense in the country. The Rattlers are nationally listed in several other defensive categories.
SLU is No. 1 in FCS in total offense with an average of 567.0 yards per game. It also has top-rate passing stats on a national level.
"Our guys know what the magnitude of this game is. It is something we’ve been preparing for the past few weeks," FAMU head coach Willie Simmons said.
"They pose a huge challenge for us. When you match a top offense against a top defense, something has to give. This will be our toughest challenge. That's what you get in the playoffs."
The Lions are on a bit of a slide this month. They've dropped two of the last three games. Overall, their three losses this season have been by a combined nine points.
Both programs have a history of relative success in the playoffs.
FAMU made it to the playoffs every year from 1996-01. Its overall record in the postseason is 5-6.
SLU is making its fourth appearance in the FCS playoffs. The Lions are 2-3 in their previous games.
Best case scenario
The Rattlers are full of momentum and positive energy.
Last week, they defeated their arch-rival Bethune-Cookman 46-21, This ended a nine-year losing streak in the Florida Classic.
FAMU brings this surge to Hammond with an all-out attack on offense, defense and special teams.
"We have to play fast and physical this weekend," FAMU safety Markquese Bell said.
"All of the momentum from last week has carried over for us. Practice this week has been phenomenal. Our defense is flying and the offense is making passes. We're clicking a lot more than at the beginning of the season."
FAMU's pressure from the defensive line is the key to stifling the Lions.
SLU is a pass-first team led by 2020 Walter Payton Award winner, quarterback Cole Kelley.
The Rattlers fight to be in his face from the inside rush to containment on the edge.
Linebacker Isaiah Land leads the nation in sacks. He is one shy of tying the school's single-season record.
Land's effectiveness as a pass rusher adds to the disruption of Kelley's comfort level in the pocket.
"I don't see anyone outplaying us. It's about being more disciplined. The team that makes the least amount of mistakes will win the game. I just want us to win. That's it," Land said.
In terms of FAMU's offense, the productivity starts with running the ball.
Its ground game will be the best way to win the time of possession battle.
The Rattlers have rushed for 1,836 yards this season. Bishop Bonnett leads the squad with 934 yards.
SLU plays in shootouts. It has surrendered 1,924 rushing yards with an average of 32 points per game.
FAMU can pass away and run up the score with this flow and minimal mistakes.
Protection from the offensive line is the battery for everything.
Last week against B-CU, the line did not allow a sack in addition to helping the backs gain over 200 yards.
With this level of security, quarterback Rasean McKay can unload darts to his stash of receivers.
Worst case scenario
Kelley shows the Rattlers why he's viewed as a star NFL prospect. He raises his draft profile by shredding through an elite defense.
The Lions' defense gives Kelley and his mates more to work with by forcing turnovers.
They convert these miscues into points and build an insurmountable lead.
Thirteen different SLU players have caught touchdown passes this season. This balanced involvement in the offense plays a factor in their home cooking at Strawberry Stadium.
Defensive back Zy Alexander is tied for third in the country with six interceptions.
He keeps FAMU's receivers in check to push the Lions over the hump for the victory.
Who wins and why
This year was full of winning moments for FCS versus FBS teams.
These programs don't fit that bill, but on paper, it has a similar vibe.
However, the Rattlers are primed to pull off an upset.
They played through the gauntlet of a SWAC schedule with only one loss. This defeat was 7-6 to Jackson State.
The Tigers are now ranked No. 14 and playing in the SWAC Championship Game.
Strawberry Stadium holds 7,408. FAMU fans travel in droves for regular-season games.
Those faithful alums are expected to take up half or more of the seats at this venue.
Hearing the noise of "strike" helps FAMU, especially in critical situations.
In a contest like this, games are typically decided by a return on defense or special teams.
This is where specialist Jah'Marae Sheread can be a difference-maker.
Another angle for FAMU on special teams is Jose Romo-Martinez. His deep punts flip the field to assist the defense.
But when it’s all said and done, defense will settle the score.
FAMU has the advantage in this department. The question remains - can it get enough stops to tip the scale in its favor?
SLU‘s passing game is a highlight reel of efficiency. However, this powerful unit has not faced a defense the caliber of FAMU.
The upset is completed with a late fumble recovery that is converted into points.
FAMU goes three for three versus teams from Louisiana with wins over Southern, Grambling State and now SLU.
Final score: FAMU 40, SLU 35
Follow FAMU beat writer Rory Sharrock on Twitter @married2game1.
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This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Just the Facts: Florida A&M-Southeastern Louisiana playoff preview