FLORENCE, Ala. — No. 2 Winston-Salem State has already gone deeper into the playoffs than any other team from the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Now, the Rams are a win away from making history for black college football, too.
They face two-time national champion Valdosta State Saturday hoping to become the first HBCU team to win Division II's football national title.
"That's a huge deal. For our conference, the HBCUs , to have a chance to play for a national championship and be the first one to win one, is a steppingstone," Winston-Salem State coach Connell Maynor said. "It's a great opportunity for us. We're happy to be here carrying the flag for the CIAA and HBCU. It'd be a great thing if we could pull it off Saturday."
The only other HBCU team to make the championship game, Central State of Ohio, lost 41-21 to North Dakota State in 1983.
Winston-Salem (14-0) is also trying to become just the fifth team to go 15-0.
Standing in the way is a Valdosta State team seeking its first title since 2007, David Dean's debut season as head coach.
Winston-Salem is in its third season since aborting a Division I move for financial reasons. The program's former status is just one more reason for Valdosta State (11-2), which ended the regular season ranked 17th, to keep the underdog mentality that formed with a rough start.
"The fact that they haven't been Division II for very long and they've got a lot of Division I players, that automatically puts us as the underdog," Blazers quarterback Cayden Cochran said. "That's something we welcomed since we were 2-2 and teams kind of wrote us off and fans of other teams kind of wrote us off.
"It kind of helps us, gives us a little extra push to know that there are people in the stands that don't think we can do it."
Winston-Salem won its last eight regular season games by at least 19 points and had only one tight playoff game, a 21-17 win over Indiana, Pa., in the quarterfinals. Yet Smith, like his Valdosta State counterpart, feels his team does not get enough respect.
"Even though we've played as good as we have, some people still have doubted us," said Smith, who has passed for 3,043 yards with 42 touchdowns against nine interceptions. "That makes us want to come out and play even harder just to prove people wrong."
He's got several dangerous targets. Jahuann Butler has 1,167 receiving yards, Jameze Massey 1,156 and Jamal Williams757. All three have caught at least 12 touchdown passes.
Winston-Salem is ninth nationally in total offense and Valdosta State 10th.
Winston-Salem's defense and Valdosta State's offense have easily handled big challenges in the playoffs.
The Blazers racked up 525 yards against West Alabama and Division II's No. 5 defense and gained 498 against Minnesota State-Makato, which had the third-rated defense.
The Rams held West Texas A&M's Harlon Hill Trophy finalist Dustin Vaughan to 169 passing yards in a 41-18 semifinals victory.
Valdosta State's Cochran has passed for 2,506 yards with receivers Gerald Ford (1,018) and Seantavious Jones (916) hovering near 1,000 yards. Both have caught 13 touchdown passes.
Winston-Salem counters with a defense allowing just 89 rushing yards a game and ranking eighth in points allowed (16.1 per game).
"They're probably one of the fastest teams that we have faced all year long," Valdosta State's Dean said. "They're tremendously athletic. Their defensive line has very good pass rushers, which can cause us problems as much as we throw the football."