FAMU and Bethune Cookman ready for their own big game today

Published November 18, 2006

Great rivalries survive the mediocre season.

They create buzz, draw in generations and often provide that dash of flavor that's been lacking from an otherwise mundane year.

Most of the nation will be hypnotized by today's rivalry showdown in the heartland, but more than 70,000 fans are expected to pour into the Florida Citrus Bowl for another hotly contested annual matchup - the 27th annual Florida Classic between Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman.

"It's the best game you ever want to be a part of," FAMU receiver Roosevelt Kiser said. "It's exciting. It can get emotional. Anything you can possibly think of comes out in that game."

This game has everything, from powerful story lines to an amazing halftime show.

Father and son are linked in Classic lore after quarterback Albert Chester II led the Rattlers from a 17-point deficit to a 26-23 overtime victory last year. Albert Sr. rallied them from the same deficit in the inaugural game.

For a while, FAMU used the Classic as a bash fest, winning 12 of 14 from 1989 to 2001, including eight in a row from 1995 to 2001.

B-CC ended the streak and won three straight before Rubin Carter took over at FAMU last year.

"For a while it would decide who won the conference," Chester, a junior, said. "Put that aside and throw the records out. It's like Florida State-Miami. It's a big-time rivalry."

Fans clearly have bought in.

Attendance broke 70,000 for the first time in 1999 and has stayed above that level. The largest crowd to see a Classic was 73,358 in 2003.

"The interstate rivalry the way it's been in the past between the two schools, a very big game," Carter said. "It's the end game, (the) last game. (It's for) recruiting rights, a game that can divide families ... all those things involved."

This season hasn't been kind to either.

FAMU (6-4, 4-3 MEAC) fought off an 0-2 start and has won three of its last four. It is led by Chester, who has fought off nagging injuries and is ranked 21st nationally in total offense (220.2 yards per game). Wesley Taylor, a Riverview alumnus, is eighth nationally in field goals (1.3 per game) and 17th in punting (41.5 yards).

"We don't have a chance to go to the playoffs or win any type of championship," Kiser said. "To us, the Classic is just like a championship, so to get a win in the Florida Classic would be a great feeling."

The Wildcats (5-5, 3-4) have dealt with lots of injuries and have been forced to juggle quarterbacks Jimmie Russell and Jarod Rucker.

B-CC has lost two of its last three, with its last win 70-7 over North Carolina A&T on Oct. 28.

"A win (today) could start off a great season for ... the guys that are staying here next year," B-CC senior Eric Weems said. "A win for us (today) could mean the same thing for us seniors. Being our last game, we need a great victory."

Izzy Gould can be reached at igould@sptimes.com or (727) 580-5315.