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Jackson State, FAMU Face Adversity Entering 2022 Orange Blossom Classic

From a water crisis in Jackson to player eligibility issues in Tallahassee, two HBCU programs are staring down unique challenges entering Sunday’s Orange Blossom Classic game.

As the Coach Prime-led Jackson State Tigers and Florida A&M Rattlers prepare to square off this weekend at the Orange Blossom Classic in Miami, there is much more at stake for the entire season rather than just conference rankings. 

Deion Sanders’ Tigers football team is dealing with a lack of clean water due to major issues with one of the two water treatment plants servicing Jackson, Mississippi — the OB Curtis Water Plant in nearby Ridgeland — as a result of flooding. The issue is affecting the entire city’s population 150,000.

“We don’t have water — water means we don’t have air conditioning, we can’t use toilets, we don’t have ice, which pretty much places a burden on the [football] program,” Sanders said in an Instagram post. “We’re operating in a crisis mode. I have to get these kids off campus into a hotel and accommodate them so that they can shower properly and take care of their needs.” 

The timetable for when the situation will be fixed is uncertain.

“There is a tremendous amount of work to be done at the OB Curtis plant. There will be future interruptions; they are not avoidable at this point, “Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said in a press conference on Wednesday. The city installed a rental pump that brought water pressure back in some areas, but there are discrepancies across the city; many still have little to no clean water pressure at all.

In the meantime, the governor shared guidelines for what should and should not be done with the municipal water that is available, strongly warning against ingesting it until further notice.

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Nearly 1,000 miles away in Tallahassee, the local athletes are dealing with an entirely different sort of challenge.

Last week, when the Florida A&M Rattlers traveled to Chapel Hill, North Carolina to open their season against the UNC Tar Heels, they did so without 26 players who were ruled ineligible. In a letter to the university’s administration, Rattlers players contend that the ineligibility issues are not related to academics, but rather “procedural issues within the registrar’s office, compliance department and academic advisement.”

The seven-page letter goes into deep detail regarding factors like financial aid, academic support and compliance, summer school, underrepresentation, and underappreciation. 

As FAMU responded in a statement on Tuesday:

“We are confident that our processes are effective and timely. We will continue to monitor our efforts in this regard and pursue all avenues to provide an excellent student experience to every athlete. FAMU is committed to upholding high standards and rigorous adherence to NCAA guidelines.”

It is unclear if Florida A&M has given any assurances to players about needed improvements related to these issues. School officials did not immediately respond to Boardroom’s requests for comment. 

As both of these two programs deal with both external and internal adversity, they must find a way to set things aside enough to travel to Miami this weekend to face off against one another in the 2022 Orange Blossom Classic game, an HBCU athletic tradition dating back to 1933.

The matchup between the two schools is one of the most highly-anticipated games of each HBCU football season. Jackson State edged out a 7-6 victory last year and went on to win the SWAC conference title, finishing as the highest-ranked historically Black institution in the Division I FCS rankings. FAMU placed second in the conference standings, with their only loss in SWAC play coming against the Tigers in South Florida. The Rattlers represented HBCUs in the FCS Playoffs, but were defeated by Southeastern Louisiana University.

Since then, the Tigers arguably had the biggest offseason in HBCU football history. Sanders landed 5-star recruit Travis Hunter, a wideout/cornerback the consenus No. 1 overall prospect in the high school class of 2022. Alongside Hunter are the likes of Isiah Kendall, another elite-tier wideout prospect, and seven other players who were ranked as 4-star recruits. Jackson State also bring back both Shedeur and Shilo Sanders, who earned all-conference honors at the end of last season. 

FAMU is also returning with some supreme talent. Edge rusher Isaiah Land is the top-ranked player in ESPN’s top 50 NFL Draft-eligible HBCU prospects list; the Rattlers have four players on the list overall, with three (including Land) in the top 25. FAMU also welcome Vanderbilt transfer Jeremy Moussa as their new starting quarterback this season. Moussa threw for 279 yards and two touchdowns in last weekend’s opener against North Carolina.

Jackson State and Florida A&M play in the Orange Blossom Classic on Sunday, Sept. 3 at 3 p.m. on ESPN2.

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