Ten weeks ago, the Southern football team unhappily walked to midfield at A.W. Mumford Stadium.
The Jaguars were congratulating Jackson State on a hard-fought 19-14 win that was typical of games between the rivals. But both sides were already thinking they might not have seen the last of the other in 2013.
“A lot of their coaches were shaking our hands, and a lot of their players were shaking our hands and saying it would be great if we could do this again,” Southern coach Dawson Odums said.
In the home locker room, Odums tried to boost his players’ spirits by telling them that if they stayed focus and kept improving, they could get a second chance.
“We’re blessed to be in position to do it again,” he said.
That second chance comes at 1 p.m. Saturday when the Jaguars and Tigers meet in the Southwestern Athletic Conference Championship at Reliant Stadium in Houston.
Southern (8-4, 6-2) has come a long way since falling to 2-3 with the loss to JSU. The Jaguars won six of their next seven games, including their past four. They clinched the West Division title a month ago.
The Tigers (8-3, 7-1) won the East Division just as handily before falling to Alcorn State 48-33 in their most recent game Nov. 16.
Southern is coming off a 40-17 victory against Grambling in the Bayou Classic last week. The Jaguars started fast in grabbing a 27-3 halftime lead.
“I think we played the best first half of football that we’ve probably played all year,” Odums said.
Then, following a familiar pattern, Southern watched Grambling fight back, closing within 27-17 before the Jaguars pulled away.
“We didn’t score in the third quarter, and we can’t do that against Jackson State,” wide receiver Lee Doss said. “They’re a good team, too. We’ve got to start fast, play through the game and then finish strong.”
In the first meeting with JSU, Southern turned the ball over twice and didn’t have a takeaway. For the rest of the season, the Tigers are minus-21 in turnovers.
“We’ve got to protect the football,” Odums said. “We’re going to have to run hard. Every yard counts, and you have to fight for every inch in this game.”
The Jaguars had a chance to win the first game at the end, but Dray Joseph’s pass on fourth-and-3 from the Tigers 7 fell incomplete in the end zone with a minute remaining.
“We dodged a bullet in the first game,” JSU coach Rick Comegy said. “That doesn’t happen often with that team now. I think they’re playing with a lot of confidence and a lot of grit.”
Southern cornerback Virgil Williams remembers playing a rematch in high school.
“It’s funny because it happened to be a rivalry, just like this game,” Williams said.
His Evangel Christian team played Calvary Baptist in the third round of the playoffs and won after having won the first meeting in the regular season. Williams said he wasn’t sure whether either team has an advantage in a rematch.
“I look at it as an opportunity to go out there and correct the mistakes that you made the first time,” Williams said.
Southern is playing in the title game for the first time in nine years and is seeking its first title in 10. JSU lost to Arkansas-Pine Bluff 24-21 in the title game last year.
The Jaguars, who have outscored their opponents 242-151 since the first meeting, said they peaked down the stretch and hope that pattern continues for one more week.
“It’s tremendous to see us get better each and every week,” Joseph said. “And it’s even better to know we haven’t played a complete game yet. It’s scary that we can be much, much better. Coach always says that, when we put a complete game together, it’s going to be shocking. Hopefully we saved it up for this game.”
The Jaguars are trying to put the final touch on a renaissance season after three consecutive losing ones. To do so, they will have to beat a longtime rival.
Southern and Jackson State first met in 1929, and each team has beaten the other 29 times. The Tigers’ victory in September followed a 5-5 deadlock in the past 10 meetings. Each of the past nine meetings has been decided by eight or fewer points.
The only previous meeting between the teams in the SWAC title game came in the inaugural one, when Southern prevailed 31-30 in 1999 in Birmingham, Ala., in front of a title game-record crowd of 47,621.
“Our fans probably don’t like their fans as much as Grambling, if not even more,” Odums said. “We’re in close proximity to each other, and we’ve played close games the last several years.
“All of that creates excitement for a regular-season game. Can you imagine the championship game? Two of the better programs battling on national TV for the conference championship. This is probably the best thing that could have happened for our conference.”