Southern’s path to a third consecutive Southwestern Athletic Conference West Division title just got a lot more complicated.
Before their 47-42 loss to Prairie View on Saturday night, the Jaguars had complete control of their championship aspirations. They knew, as long as they kept winning — as they had in their first three SWAC games — they didn’t have to concern themselves with anything else.
When you play every team in your conference — a nine-round prize fight is the way coach Dawson Odums and his players describe it — you know that, if you win every game, no one else can match your record.
But now Southern is 3-1 and, even if it wins the remaining rounds, the best it can be is 8-1. Grambling is 5-0 and already has beaten Prairie View and East Division-leading Alcorn State.
The Jaguars still control their fate in relation to the Tigers because the teams meet in the regular-season finale. If Southern finishes 8-1, it will hold the tiebreaker against Grambling.
But even if the Jaguars win out, they’ll need someone to take out the Panthers, because they hold the tiebreaker after Saturday’s win.
“Every game is an elimination game,” linebacker Daniel Brown said.
But winning all the elimination games won’t be enough.
That’s where the complications come in, but there’s no point calculating the various possibilities in the conference race, because the loss to Prairie View gave the Jaguars more than enough internal issues to deal with.
If they’re going to win the next round — Saturday at Texas Southern — they’ll have to get better in several areas.
They fumbled six times and lost four of them, leaving them minus-1 in turnovers for the game. Giving the ball away more than you take it away is inviting defeat, and turning it over four times is usually going to create an even bigger deficit than the one they had Saturday.
The turnover statistics don’t include a failed fourth-down conversion from the Prairie View 1, which was the equivalent of a turnover. Lenard Tillery and Malcolm Crockett both fumbled on that possession — Tillery at the 2, Crockett at the 1 — but they managed to get the ball back.
The failure of the running game at the goal line — four runs after having first-and-goal from the 2-yard line netted 1 yard — also was an issue on the game’s first possession.
The Jaguars began the game with pass completions of 9 and 64 yards and, just like that, it was first-and-goal from the 6. But two runs by Tillery netted 0 yards, and Austin Howard missed Montrell Jones on a third-down pass as Southern wound up with three points instead of seven.
The running game netted 143 yards and two touchdowns as well as an adequate 4.3 yards per carry. But the red-zone shortcomings cost Southern 11 points that were easily within reach in a game it lost by five.
So turnovers and missed opportunities in the running game were problems, but no more than the third-down defense. Prairie View converted 11 of 16 third downs, and it scored touchdowns on third-and-15 and third-and-10 plays.
The bigger concern is that third-down defense has been an issue all season. The Jaguars’ SWAC opponents’ 53.8 percent conversion rate is the highest in the SWAC.
The Jaguars’ inability to get off the field on third down with acceptable regularity is enabling their SWAC opponents to keep the football nearly 5 more minutes per game. That can lead to fatigue for the defense, but even worse it reduces the opportunities for one of the most productive offenses in the conference.
This week’s game is the Jaguars’ hump game in SWAC play — the fifth of nine — so there’s a lot of football left to be played. Prairie View still has to play Alcorn State, among others, and Southern gets the Braves in two weeks.
The West Division standings are still fluid and might stay that way right through the Bayou Classic on Nov. 28.
The Jaguars no longer control their future in the division race, but they do control whether they fix — or at least lessen — the problems that caused them to lose control.
Follow Les East on Twitter: @EastAdvocate.