By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
ORANGEBURG, S.C. — Watching South Carolina State’s dominating 36-0 MEAC victory over Florida A&M on Thursday night, I was struck by a bit of sadness.
Jalen Simmons was spectacular in rushing for 159 yards and Justin Taylor had a pair of touchdowns behind outstanding offensive line play, while the stout Bulldog defense shut out the struggling Rattler before a national television audience on ESPNU.
South Carolina State (2-1) piled up 447 yards on the ground and ended with a 601-242 offensive advantage.
But what could have been the start of another run to the playoffs for SCSU leaves you wondering instead what this team and others in the MEAC are actually playing for?
The Buddy Pough-coached Bulldogs have been one of the top teams in the MEAC for many years and have experienced their share of memorable postseason moments with four trips to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs since 2008.
Pough and I have shared several conversations over the years about his desire to see his South Carolina State program compete in the national championship process. But in 2015, the Bulldogs will likely be on the outside looking in, even if they emerge as the MEAC champions again.
The MEAC and the SWAC — the two historically black conferences in FCS — have agreed to play an HBCU championship game beginning this season, meaning that the champions of those two leagues will be ineligible for the playoffs.
Because of this new alignment, the MEAC has forfeited its automatic berth in the NCAA playoffs. A number of MEAC members were not supportive of this decision and it could lead to schools such as South Carolina State seeking other conference membership in the future.
It might be winning by losing if a team from the MEAC finishes second and has a good enough record to receive an at-large bid into the 24-team NCAA playoffs, rather than play in a somewhat meaningless bowl game against the top team from the SWAC — a league that the MEAC has largely dominated in recent years.
Once powerful options for black athletes in the world of college football recruiting, both the MEAC and the SWAC have watched a talent drain in their respective leagues, an erosion that has been ongoing for many years.
During Thursday night’s television broadcast, the delightful and legendary retired SCSU coach Willie Jeffries was interviewed to talk about his historic career — a career that included becoming the first black head coach in what is now the Football Bowl Subdivision.
He coached for five years at Wichita State and five more at Howard in-between stints totaling 19 years at South Carolina State.
The list of future NFL players he coached was mentioned during the interview. Names like Harry Carson, Donnie Shell, Robert Porcher, Chartric Darby, Dexter Clinksdale, David Norman and Anthony Cook were among those mentioned. He even noted that Deacon Jones had spent a year in Orangeburg before moving on to Mississippi Valley State.
But with the current trends in the MEAC and the SWAC, you don’t see that type of talent often on display at schools like South Carolina State and Florida A&M and you are likely to see even less athletes like this in the future as HBCUs become more insular.
SCSU struggled in a 41-14 loss to Coastal Carolina — ranked No. 1 among FCS schools in some polls — last week at home and probably doesn’t have a shot at a deep playoff run this season, but at least the Bulldogs deserve the chance at a true postseason, if they can survive the MEAC title chase.
Indeed, there are many reasons to feel sad.
THE MESS IN TALLAHASSEE
During the 1999 playoffs, I stood next to Florida A&M coach Billy Joe at halftime of a game at Appalachian State’s Kidd Brewer Stadium as he enjoyed the performance of Marching 100 — the Racers’ superlative band.
“I’ve never had a chance to see them perform their halftime show before,” said Joe, who preferred to coach and call plays from the press box and was unable to get back to the Rattler locker room that day.
Joe’s halftime regimen didn’t affect the game’s outcome as the Racers clubbed Appalachian State 44-29 in a contest that wasn’t as close as the score. FAMU went on to beat Troy State the next week, 17-10, before losing to Jim Tressel and eventual national champion Youngstown State, 27-24, in the national semifinals.
No HBCU school has been that far in the playoffs since then and Florida A&M’s once prodigious program has been in decline for most of this decade.
Political forces at FAMU showed Joe the door after the 2004 season and then ousted another legendary coach Joe Taylor in 2012. Earl Holmes found little success after that and now Alex Wood, the onetime James Madison coach, is trying to turn things around.
But from the look of things on Thursday night, the Rattlers have a lot of rebuilding to do to return to their former glory — success that included the first I-AA national championship in 1978 under coach Rudy Hubbard.
FAMU managed just 10 first downs against South Carolina State and the closest the Rattlers came to scoring occurred late in the fourth quarter when they missed a short field goal.
Already 0-3 this season, it looks more likely that FAMU is on its way to a fourth straight losing season and may have trouble staying out of the MEAC cellar.