Florida A&M and Southeastern Louisiana meet in the first round of the 2021 FCS Playoffs on Saturday. The reward for the victor will be a trip to take on James Madison on December 4.
Choosing a favorite isn’t easy, since Florida hasn’t played postseason football in two decades, while SE Louisiana finished 8-3, 6-2 in the conference, but enter this game on the back of a 45-42 defeat to Nicholls State. The Lions did at least go 3-1 at home, so should fancy their chances at the Strawberry Stadium.
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The game (7 p.m. ET start time) isn’t on TV anywhere, but anyone in the US can watch FAMU vs SE Louisiana and every other FCS playoff first-round game live on ESPN+:
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FAMU vs SE Louisiana Football 2021 Preview
SE Louisiana won’t want to trust a leaky defense to take charge of this game. Aside from giving up 45 points against Nicholls State, the Lions also were also beaten 55-52 by Incarnate Word. Those numbers will have head coach Frank Scelfo worried, especially since Florida A&M closed out the regular season by putting 46 on the scoreboard against the Bethune-Cookman Wildcats.
The Rattlers are the more rounded team thanks to a formidable defense to go with an efficient offense. A relentless pass rush in front of a ball-hawking secondary defines the FAMU D’, and Lions quarterback Cole Kelley will be keen to avoid safety Markquese Bell and cornerback BJ Bohler. Kelley is a dual-threat playmaker, and he’ll need all of his mobility to avoid rush linebacker Isaiah Land, the undisputed star of Florida’s defense after a 19-sack season.
Land is only 215 pounds, but he’s bullied enough offensive tackles to establish a record-setting pace this season. One more sack would tie a school mark set by Alonzo Johnson in 1981, according to Rory Sharrock of the Tallahassee Democrat.
Co-defensive coordinators Brandon Sharp and Ryan Smith like to move Land all over the front. Rushing the main man from all angles will be key to disrupting Kelley’s rhythm and the timing of the SE Louisiana passing game.
A lot of that timing is based on Kelley’s rapport with wide receivers Austin Mitchell and Gage Larvadain. Neither stands taller than 5’10”, but both are versatile speedsters able to stretch the field from the outside or beat slot defenders on option routes. Mitchell and Larvadain aren’t the only weapons at Kelley’s disposal, though, not with Nolan Given also in the mix.
The 260-pound tight end is the big-bodied power forward among these pass-catchers. Kelley routinely looks Given’s way in clutch situations, one reason why the latter paced the team with 46 receptions. With all these weapons, it’s no wonder Kelley “has passed for two or more TDs in 15 straight games,” per Craig Haley of The Analyst.
Something’s going to give when the most prolific offense in the FCS meets a start-studded defense. It’ll be the Rattlers who progress if the big names on their defense force Kelley and Co. into some critical turnovers.