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Record-setting B-CC safety has 1 remaining goal

He does not wear garnet and gold. He does not play in front of more than 83,000 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium at Florida Field. His team is not ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll, the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll and the Bowl Championship Series.

He might be the best defensive player in the state, and he doesn't even have to still be in college.

Bethune-Cookman free safety Rashean Mathis could have left for the NFL long ago, but he stayed for his senior season and one more shot: at the Division I-AA record for interceptions; at a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championship; at the I-AA playoffs.

The first two goals are his. The third goal?

"Hopefully that's soon to come," Mathis said.

As soon as Saturday's 23rd annual Florida Classic with Florida A&M at the Florida Citrus Bowl in Orlando.

A playoff berth is at stake when these rivals meet. But regardless of the outcome, B-CC is enjoying the finest season in its 76-year history. The Wildcats are 10-1, tying a school record for wins (10-2 in 1947). B-CC's 46-27 defeat of Howard on Saturday won it a share of the MEAC championship for the first time since 1988.

And this from a team that lost 16 players in the offseason, dismissed by coach Alvin Wyatt for academic and disciplinary problems.

"I think it got us closer as a team," Mathis said. "We came together. We knew people thought the odds were against us, and that made us come together even closer."

Mathis said he was confident the Wildcats would overcome those losses as well as they have.

"It's not surprising, we kind of expected it," he said. "We have great talent at a lot of positions this year. I feel this is the best team we've had since I've been here.

"A lot of people really thought that since we lost 16 players it would hurt us, but it wasn't any players who could hurt us. It wasn't the main, key guys. The main key guys did what they had to do. They did what coach asked them to do."

No one has been more of a main, key guy than Mathis.

Take Saturday's win over Howard. The 6-foot-3, 192-pound senior opened the second quarter with a 55-yard interception return for a touchdown to put B-CC up 13-6. With 50 seconds left in the first half, he caught a 32-yard touchdown from reserve quarterback Scot Austin to put the Wildcats on top 22-13. It was his second touchdown reception of 2002.

But it is on defense that Mathis has caught the attention of NFL scouts, earning an invitation to the Jan. 18 Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala.

The two-time All-American and third-year starter is a fierce ballhawk who has 30 career interceptions. He covers receivers like a blanket, using his speed (4.42-second 40) and technical mastery.

He has 13 interceptions this season. His 13th was against Howardand broke the I-AA record set 13 years ago by Princeton's Dean Cain. He also leads the team with 18 passes broken up.

"I'm a defensive back, but when the ball is in the air I feel I'm a receiver," Mathis said. "I believe I have as much a chance as anyone to get the ball. I believe if you can put one hand on the ball, you can put two."

Mathis had 11 interceptions as a sophomore; then teams started throwing away from him as a junior, and he had only four. For some reason, they started testing him again in 2002.

"Some quarterbacks are smart and they go away from me," he said. "Some try to test me, see if I'm up to the challenge. I feel I'm a great test-taker. If they want to challenge me, I love it."

Mathis said he shored up his weakness this season, run support. He is third on the team in tackles with 42, 17 unassisted. But in the end his specialty is that of playmaker, such as when he returned a short field-goal attempt 100 yards for the score against FAMU in 2000's Florida Classic, giving B-CC a 28-25 lead, its last before FAMU won 31-28.

Now Mathis is focused on aB-CC team that controls its destiny.

"The past two years we had to worry about this team losing and that team losing," Mathis said. "Now everybody is hoping we're the team that loses."