Can Prairie View make the Southwestern Athletic Conference West Division race a three-team battle?
That’s the question entering Southern’s game against the Panthers at 4 p.m. Saturday in A.W. Mumford Stadium.
Southern won last year’s division title when it edged Grambling on the final play of the regular-season 52-45. Another tight battle between those two longtime rivals was forecast for this season: Grambling was voted to win the West by a mere two points over Southern.
The Tigers (4-2 overall) and Jaguars (3-2) have lived up to their billing — in conference play, Grambling is 4-0 and Southern is 3-0 — but Prairie View (3-2), under first-year coach Willie Simmons, is 3-1 and can thrust itself into the thick of the West race if it spoils the Jaguars’ homecoming Saturday.
The Panthers’ standing could be further enhanced if Grambling loses to defending SWAC champion and East Division-leading Alcorn (4-1, 3-0) on Saturday. Grambling beat Prairie View 70-54 on Sept 26.
“We know what’s at stake,” said Simmons, who was Alcorn’s offensive coordinator the past three seasons. “It’s a divisional game, so it’s a huge game from that standpoint. We’re one game behind those two teams in the conference standings right now. So for us to have a chance of accomplishing our goal of representing the West in the SWAC championship game, this is a game we have to win.
“Of course we’ll still need some help from somebody to beat Grambling twice, because they own the head-to-head against us. Those teams were picked to finish first and second in the West for a reason. We know that we have to do our part to have a chance. We can’t just show up and expect to win. We fully expect to go down there and have a knock-down, drag-out.”
Southern, which has won its three SWAC games by an average margin of 22 points, is seeking a third consecutive West division title, and a victory Saturday would keep the West a two-team race that likely won’t be decided until the Bayou Classic against Grambling on Nov. 28 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“It’s round four of nine that we’ve got to play,” Southern coach Dawson Odums said. “They have one loss, and they understand what they’ve got to do and we understand what we have to do. They’re getting better on offense and defense, and I hope that’s what we’re doing, too — getting better.”
The Panthers opened the season with a 38-11 victory against Texas Southern, and it also has conference wins against Alabama A&M (53-49) and Mississippi Valley State (45-6) last week. They average 511.8 yards and 47.5 points.
Former Glen Oaks High star Johnta Hebert leads the SWAC with an average of 183.5 all-purpose yards per game.
“I do feel this is going to be one of the toughest tests we’ve faced as a defense in the SWAC so far,” Southern linebacker Kentavious Preston said. “(Hebert) is the No. 1 person that we’re going to have to focus on on their offense. He catches the ball out of the backfield. He’ll run the ball out of the backfield. He’s a very shifty back.”
Southern’s offensive numbers are similar to Prairie View’s: The Jaguars average 489.0 yards and 48.3 points in SWAC play.
The Jaguars won last year’s meeting 34-24, but this game could resemble more the last meeting in Mumford two years ago, when Southern won 62-59 in double overtime.
“I’m pretty sure our offense is ready for a game like that,” Jaguars running back Lenard Tillery said. “A lot of people are discrediting our defense, but I think our defense should come out this week and play a strong game. People are talking about a shootout, but I think our defense is going to come out and make some key stops for us.”
Southern is allowing 402.7 yards and 26.0 points in SWAC play and Prairie View is allowing 428.8 yards and 34.0 points.
Whether it’s a shootout or not, the outcome of this game will have a big impact on the West race.
“When I got here,” Simmons said, “I told the team that in this league you’re going to have to win some games 50-49, but you also have to win some games 17-16.”
Follow Les East on Twitter: @EastAdvocate.