Tuskegee and Fort Valley State have played many times before, but never in a game of such significance as their upcoming meeting, the inaugural Red Tails Classic in Montgomery, Alabama.
The Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC) game will be held on opening weekend of the 108th season of league play. It will be among the 22 football games broadcast this year as part of a new multiyear agreement between the SIAC and ESPN.
The classic will be broadcast on Sept. 5 at 7 p.m. ET on ESPNU. The game is part of a slate of ESPN Events to showcase historically Black colleges and universities on the network.
“Anytime you can start off a season with an opportunity on television to represent your university, that is outstanding. We are going to look to take advantage of it,” said Fort Valley State coach Maurice Flowers. “We’re just very excited and we know we have a lot of work to do before we get to that point.”
Flowers said his team has been preparing for the classic for quite some time. In the spring, the Wildcats played against Shorter University and Erskine College, winning both games.
“For a while, we’ve been preparing mentally and physically. The spring was very important for us to go out there, come together as a team and play together to really get that chemistry before the fall. Even though it’s a new season, we have been together for a long time, so we been preparing and we are ready,” said Shemar Bridges, a 6-foot-4, 210-pound All-SIAC wide receiver from Jacksonville, Florida.
Flowers said competing for championships is the expectation at Fort Valley State. “Undoubtedly, we are ready to compete in a championship. We walked in the door and said, ‘We want to win right now,’ ” said Flowers. He said 85% of the team is fully vaccinated, and those who are not will have the opportunity to get the vaccine free of charge on campus.
The SIAC had announced that all players and coaches must be fully vaccinated to compete this season.
Tuskegee coach Willie Slater, called the “granddaddy of them all” by SIAC commissioner Gregory Moore, acknowledged his team needs more preparation before the classic. Slater is entering his 15th season at Tuskegee with an overall record of 110-39, which ranks him second in all-time wins at the university.
“I know we are behind in a lot of areas because we did not play in the fall and we did not play in the spring. We went through spring training and defense killed us, which lets me know we need a lot of work on the offensive side of the ball,” Slater said.
Their main focus is making sure the team is in the best shape possible before stepping on the field. “We have a young group, but it’s a group that I am excited about,” he said. “I think they have a lot of potential and I am excited about that. People know what we do, but they don’t know when we do it.”
The players are most excited about getting back on the field to make their fans proud.
“It is very exciting to play in front of the fans again,” said Taurean Taylor, the Golden Tigers’ 5-foot-7, 180-pound running back. “Personally, I think we owe them. I don’t care if I have to carry my legs off of the field. I’m running until I can’t run no more.”
Slater says his team’s current strength is on the defensive side, so he is excited to work with returning players and build upon those skills. Taylor says the team’s bond will be what carries them to victory.
“Over the pandemic, we have been putting in work and have been putting in a lot of time together during the offseason. We have been communicating with each other to see how each other plays,” said Taylor. “We are going to go out there with a reason to fight for each other.”
In the SIAC predicted order of finish, Fort Valley State is picked to finish third in the East division, and Tuskegee is predicted to finish second in the West. Savannah State is picked to win the East, and Miles, the two-time defending SIAC champion, is picked to win the West.
The Wildcats had six players on the preseason all-league first and second teams: offensive linemen Emanuel Boone and Waylin Bell, defensive backs Zach Anderson and Michael Hicks Jr., defensive lineman Jahseari Patterson and wide receiver Bridges. Tuskegee had no players named to the preseason teams.
Preseason players of the year are Savannah State running back D’Angelo Durham on offense and Miles College linebacker Mitchell Smiley on defense.