What a difference a week makes.
One week ago, Southern was coming off a 56-16 loss at Alcorn State, a game in which it was outmanned.
Now the Jaguars are coming off a 51-36 victory against Arkansas-Pine Bluff that concluded the first half of the season and made the second half look much brighter.
Sure, playing a limited UAPB team at home instead of Southwestern Athletic Conference pace-setter Alcorn on the road had something to do with it. But there were signs that Southern is getting better.
Austin Howard made more plays in the passing game, though he still needs to “value the football” better, as coach Dawson Odums put it.
Reggie Travis continued his development as a big-target receiver, which helps mitigate the loss of Randall Menard for the season.
The return to health of Jamarcus Jarvis and Malcolm Crockett restored much of the lost depth at running back. The return of Tyre Bracken down the road will be a further boost.
The return of defensive backs Dionte McDuffy, D’Andre Woodland and Jaleel Richardson gave a psychological as well as physical boost to the defense and the team as a whole.
After the Alcorn loss, the Jaguars talked about still having control of their fate in the West, which was true but wouldn’t mean anything if that performance was indicative of how the team would continue to play.
But the team played much better Saturday, and the return of key players had a lot to do with it. Now Southern heads to Alabama A&M to play a team that, talent-wise, seems closer to UAPB than Alcorn. Then comes the first of the Jaguars’ two open dates.
The open date comes at a good time. Although the Jaguars got a couple of injured players back, they aren’t 100 percent, and the time off will help them as well as Bracken, quarterback Deonte Shorts and receiver Mike Jones, who have missed the past three games. The roster could be bolstered further if cornerback Kevin King or nose tackle Jaylen Jordan gets reinstated.
The experience that Howard has acquired has made him a better quarterback in October than he was in September, and he figures to get better and better as the season goes along. Freshman defensive backs Brian Anderson and Danny Johnson already have been impact players and, like Howard, figure to be even better down the stretch.
The West isn’t going to be decided until November — perhaps the last Saturday in November when Southern and resurgent Grambling meet in the Bayou Classic in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. But there’s reason to believe Southern will be playing its best football late.
The Jaguars are 2-1 and tied with Texas Southern, one game behind Grambling. Southern hosts Texas Southern on Nov. 8.
If Southern takes care of business and comes away from Alabama A&M with a victory, it will remain in solid position going into the open date. With only the Oct. 25 game at Jackson State scheduled on an opponent’s home field after the A&M game, the Jaguars could be poised for a strong finishing kick.
But more important than the standings or the way the schedule shapes up is the way Southern shaped up after the embarrassing loss at Alcorn. The Jaguars had a players-only meeting last week to talk about how they would respond, and then they went out and responded quite well.
The second half of the season suddenly looks a lot more promising because of the way the first half ended.