The Southern football team wasn’t a likely candidate to win the Southwestern Athletic Conference West Division this season.
The Jaguars had a losing record each of the last three seasons.
They lost their first two games this season by a combined score of 117-27.
They looked like they were headed for 0-3 when they fell behind Prairie View 35-13 late in the third quarter before prevailing 62-59 in double overtime.
They fell to 2-3 after a 19-14 loss to Jackson State on Sept. 28.
But here they are, 8-4 and headed to Houston to face Jackson State again for the SWAC title after winning six of seven games, including four in a row.
The turnaround has been dramatic, largely unexpected and not easy to explain — even for the guy in charge.
“This team is really different,” coach Dawson Odums said. “You can’t put your finger on why they do the things that they do. You can’t put your finger on why all of a sudden they’re starting to start fast.
“I just relate it to the fact that they’re confident and they’re eager to perform. They’re excited about where they are. They’ve tasted winning and they don’t want to taste losing.”
Odums remembers other moments besides the comeback against Prairie View that told him this team was “different.”
Four weeks ago, two days after the Jaguars clinched the West, they trailed Alabama State 21-7 on the road. After rallying to go ahead 28-21, they saw the Hornets tie the score with 89 seconds remaining.
“The kickoff return team went into the huddle and they looked at each other and said, ‘We’ve just got to do our job,’ ” Odums recalled.
That they did as Jaleel Richardson returned the kickoff 64 yards, setting the stage for Greg Pittman’s game winning 43-yard field goal, a career-long.
“Our kicker went on the field and he was in his own zone,” Odums said. “There was a belief that we’ve been here and we know what to do. That’s just everybody coming together.”
Odums recalled a moment in last week’s Bayou Classic when Grambling was fighting back from a 27-3 deficit much like the Jaguars had fought back against Prairie View.
“One of the guys came up in the huddle and said, ‘Coach, we’ve been here before. Look at us, coach. You think we’re worried about it? We’re relaxed. This is us,’ ” said Odums, who recalled thinking to himself, “I’m glad y’all are relaxed.”
Because he wasn’t.
“But that’s the confidence of this team,” Odums said. “They haven’t been in a championship game but we’ve sort of been in championship games every week. We’ve had so many games come down to the wire, we’ve played three overtime games, we were down almost 30 and came back.
“You don’t always know what you’re going to get with this team, but you do know that they’re not going to quit, they’re going to play to the end and they’re confident in what they’re doing.”
It hasn’t been smooth sailing all the time. Odums has twice suspended wide receiver Lee Doss, who has caught four touchdown passes in the last two games, and also suspnded linebacker Anthony Balancier, who has become a leader on a blossoming defense.
After the Bayou Classic, Doss publicly thanked Odums for suspending him, saying it taught him a much-needed lesson that wasn’t immediately apparent.
Odums was asked this week what it tells him when players respond in a positive way to a suspension.
“That we’re running things the right way,” he said. “They understand that we care about them. We love them — and it’s tough love. We’re just trying to make them better young men. At the end of the day that’s what’s in my hands. I owe it to their parents to make sure that when they leave Southern they’re better equipped for society.”
And along the way they became a much better football team.
“Coach Odums preaches to us that there’s more to life than just football,” Doss said. “Playing football is a game, but at the same time it teaches you different things about life.”
It has taught this team perseverance, how to handle adversity, staying positive no matter what, and leaning on and trusting in one another.
In other words, how to play for a championship.