Southern’s open date this weekend gives it a chance to sit back and assess the Southwestern Athletic Conference race.

The defending SWAC champion Jaguars (4-3 and 3-1) are in the thick of the West Division race with five games remaining.

There are just three games on the SWAC schedule this weekend as three other teams — Jackson State (Southern’s next opponent on Oct. 25 in Jackson, Miss.), Alabama A&M and Alabama State — also have open dates.

But the three games that are being played will grab the Jaguars’ interest.

Resurgent Grambling, which had the worst record in the SWAC last season and is the only team unbeaten in conference play (4-0), hosts Arkansas-Pine Bluff (0-3). Texas Southern, which is tied with Southern for second in the West, visits East Division leader Alcorn State (3-1).

The other game has Prairie View, which has won two straight after losing its first three conference games, visiting Mississippi Valley State (1-4).

“A big part of it is believing,” Grambling coach Broderick Fobbs said of his team’s turnaround. “Once you believe, that can prompt you to do a lot of things. We’ve been fortunate to win some football games but we still haven’t done anything. We still have a lot of work to do. We’re not where we need to be just yet.”

But the Tigers are where almost no one believed they would be after Grambling was picked to finish last in the conference in the SWAC preseason poll.

“I said from the beginning it doesn’t matter where you’re picked,” Fobbs said. “You all are at the starting line in the same place. It’s just a matter of doing what you’re supposed to do and being objective driven. That’s our deal. We just try to stay in the moment and make the most of that moment.”

The West most likely will be decided during a round robin among the top contenders in November. Grambling visits Texas Southern on Nov. 1, Texas Southern visits Southern on Nov. 8 and Southern and Grambling play in the Bayou Classic on Nov. 29 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

“Grambling is a hot football team that’s playing at a very high level right now,” said UAPB coach Monte Coleman, whose team will try to cool off the Tigers on Saturday. “(Fobbs) has got those young men playing as a team.

“They’re playing with a lot of confident. I think that’s the biggest difference between them and past Grambling teams: they’re not beating themselves. A lot of times teams just need to believe in themselves and that’s what he’s got them doing now.”

None of the West contenders has lost a division game. Grambling is unbeaten, Southern’s loss came at Alcorn and Texas Southern’s loss came against Alabama State.

When the Jaguars return to action next Saturday it will be for a rematch of last year’s title game. Southern beat Jackson State 34-27 in double overtime to claim its first SWAC championship in 10 years.

Though the Jaguars remain in contention in the West, it’s highly unlikely the Tigers (1-3) will get back to the title game under first-year coach Harold Jackson.

The East is shaping up as a battle between Alcorn and Alabama State. The Braves opened a little breathing room when they routed the Hornets 33-7 on Oct. 2, just five days after they handed Southern its only conference loss 56-16.

But Alcorn suffered its first league loss when it visited Grambling last week, leaving it just a half-game ahead of Alabama State, though the Braves hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.

“We just have to bounce back and get ready for another game; that’s what this game is all about,” Alcorn coach Jay Hopson said. “We’ve got to be better this week.”

Alabama State still has to play two of the top teams in the West on the road as it visits Southern on Nov. 1 and Grambling on Nov. 15.

“There have been times when the consistency has been good, but we’re average right now,” ASU coach Reggie Barlow said. “We have to regroup.”

By the close of business on Nov. 15 the East should be decided. On Nov. 22, Alabama State plays a non-conference game when it hosts Stillman and the only league game pits also-rans when Alabama A&M visits Arkansas-Pine Bluff.

But the race in the West could well continue until the final game as Southern and Grambling meet in their traditional slot on the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend.

Follow Les East on Twitter @EastAdvocate. For more coverage, follow our blogs at http://blogs.theadvocate.com