HOUSTON — Before this season began, Southern coach Dawson Odums invited reporters to look up the fate of recent teams defending a Southwestern Athletic Conference championship.
As the Jaguars began a season as reigning conference champions for the first time in 10 years, Odums knew the enormous challenge facing his team. This was before he knew just how hamstrung he, his staff and his team would be by academic ineligibility and other absences because of belated academic certification.
The last school to repeat as SWAC champion was Grambling in 2002. Since then only two schools — Southern in 2004 and Jackson State in 2008 — even made it back to the championship game the year after winning it.
So the Jaguars accomplished more than most of their recent peers by repeating as West Division champions, not to mention finishing with a league-best 8-1 regular-season record and taking a seven-game win streak into the title game.
“We overcame major, major hurdles to get here,” Odums said after the 38-24 loss to Alcorn State in the title game Saturday in NRG Stadium.
He recalled the infamous bus ride from Baton Rouge to Lafayette to begin the season against the Ragin’ Cajuns. The team sat idly while administrators determined which players would have to be removed from the busses because they weren’t academically certified to play.
Certification issues would drag on throughout the first half of the season, but they can’t be blamed for the loss to Alcorn State on Saturday. The Jaguars didn’t repeat as SWAC champions for one very simple reason — they were the second-best team in the conference.
But the certification issues are useful in looking at the 2014 season in totality. In addition to five key players who never suited up because of academic issues, a half dozen more missed time before being cleared to return.
The absences forced players and coaches to adjust on a weekly basis, occasionally even at the last-minute, to changing roles. They forced young players to play before they were really ready, leading to growing pains early, but accelerated maturation late.
The return of key players, most of which happened in the wake of a 56-16 loss at Alcorn on Sept. 27, which was the final loss until the one Saturday, bolstered the team, physically and emotionally, for the stretch run.
It was a team that appeared to have all the elements necessary to win another title — a balanced offense, a peaking defense with a strong pass rush and special teams with big-time playmakers.
But on Saturday, the offensive balance wasn’t there and neither the running game nor the passing game worked consistently well. The defense couldn’t slow down the run or record a sack. Though the special teams came up with a trio of big plays, they weren’t enough to overcome the other shortcomings, not against a team as complete as the Braves.
But as the clock wound down to the end Saturday evening, the corner of Jaguar Nation that made the trip to NRG Stadium stayed until the end
The mood was less disappointment at failing to win a championship as appreciation for the determined fight that ended on the cusp of a championship.
As Alcorn players and coaches ascended the podium at midfield to collect their well-earned hardware, the large contingent of Southern fans stood, cheered and waved pom-poms.
Several players acknowleged them with hand slaps on the way to the tunnel. Most players trotted with their heads pointed upward, rather than trudging to the locker room. At least one player hugged at least one assistant coach.
Odums said the players ultimately won’t be judged by what happened Saturday but by how they respond going forward. Based on the 2014 season, it’s reasonable to expect them to respond well.
No one begins a season dreaming of leaving the field as the runner-up when it’s all said and done.
But even though it wasn’t a satisfying ending for the coaches, players, or their most ardent followers, it was clear that didn’t prevent an appreciation for the journey.