Southern has come a long way since Dawson Odums was named head coach after the Jaguars’ 0-2 start in 2012.
He immediately brought stability and discipline as the Jaguars went a relatively respectable 4-5 the rest of the way.
The next season, Southern won its first Southwestern Athletic Conference championship in 10 years, and last season it returned to the title game, though it came up short.
The Jaguars (4-3, 4-1) are again in the thick of the West Division race, establishing themselves as perennial title contenders.
But there’s one thing Southern hasn’t done during Odums’ tenure, and it’s a big thing: defeat Alcorn State. The Jaguars will try to end a four-game losing streak in the series when they face the Braves (4-2, 3-1) at 4 p.m. Saturday in A.W. Mumford Stadium.
“I haven’t beat them since I’ve been here,” senior safety Dionte McDuffy said, “and it eats me up inside.”
The Braves beat the Jaguars 20-17 in Odums’ season as interim coach, 44-38 in overtime in the last meeting in Mumford Stadium two years ago and 56-16 in the regular season and 38-24 in the SWAC title game in Houston last season.
The 56-16 loss in Lorman, Mississippi, was the biggest margin of defeat for Southern in a SWAC game since 2010.
“Alcorn is a great team,” McDuffy said. “They’re well coached and they play very hard, so we feel like we have to match that because the last few years we haven’t come out and played our best game against them.”
The Jaguars were healthier and more competitive in the SWAC title game but still came up short.
“We’ve never beaten them, and it’s time that we set the record straight,” senior nose guard Gabe Echols said.
The losses last season were especially significant because they were Southern’s only conference losses, and the last one denied the Jaguars a second consecutive SWAC title.
Since the start of preseason camp, the players have been wearing T-shirts inscribed with the word “remember” and the final score from the SWAC title game. The shirts were made as reminders that the goal is to get back to Houston and win — as the Jaguars did two years ago against Jackson State.
“You remember it every day,” running back Lenard Tillery said. “And if you forget, somebody else will remember it.”
Though the message is about winning the SWAC title, that goal can’t be divorced from the team that won the title game last year and could well be back in Houston this season. The Braves lead the East Division.
Alcorn coach Jay Hopson didn’t put any stock in the Braves’ winning streak.
“Each week and each game is a different battle,” he said. “I don’t think that really has anything to do with anything.”
Odums didn’t want to dwell on the past either.
“When you look at it, our freshmen have never lost to them,” he said. “You’ve got to deal with the whole aspect of the team. It’s just a matter of us taking care of business. You just look at it as an opportunity to take another step toward the goals that you have in place.”
The ultimate goal of winning the SWAC title would be dealt a severe blow with another loss to the Braves.
That would put the Jaguars two games behind first-place Grambling (6-0) and a de facto two games behind Prairie View, which has one loss and holds the tiebreaker over Southern, which would have to win its last three conference games and hope Grambling and Prairie View both lose twice.
“We’ve got to win out,” quarterback Austin Howard said.
“We know it’s a circumstance where you have to win or go home,” Echols said. “We’re not planning on strapping up to lose. We’re planning on winning.”
Said guard Anthony Mosley: “This is do or die.”
Southern knows its simplest path to the West title is to win its four remaining games and for Prairie View to lose at least once. It all starts with Alcorn, which plays Prairie View next week.
“They’re a tough out,” Odums said of the Braves. “We’ve probably got to play the best football that we’ve played all year to have a chance against them.”
Follow Les East on Twitter: @EastAdvocate.