HOUSTON — Southern and Alcorn State enter Saturday’s Southwestern Athletic Conference Championship Game at NRG Stadium from different backgrounds.
But both 9-3 teams have reason to believe they’re up to the challenge.
The defending champion Jaguars (8-1 in the SWAC) are making their second appearance in the title game in 365 days. The Braves (7-2 in league play) are making their first appearance in the 16-year-old event.
“I think you understand the surroundings,” Southern coach Dawson Odums said. “I think you understand the schedule. You understand the type of mindset that we want when we go on the road. I think you’ve got some guys who say, ‘This is what we did; this is what it’s about.’ ”
But Alcorn has confidence, knowing it beat Southern by 40 points 10 weeks ago. Southern has confidence after having won all seven of its games since then, while Alcorn lost twice in six games after that, including its most recent outing — a 34-31 defeat to Jackson State two weeks ago.
“The first time we played them, they were really rolling,” Odums said. “Now I think they stumbled a little bit late. You’ve been able to see some teams get to them and been able to find ways to beat them. But I think at the end of the day, they still do what they do and they do it well, and they’re still a polished football team.”
The Braves lead the SWAC in nearly all major statistical categories. They’re first in scoring, total offense and rushing offense, and sixth in passing offense. They’re first in scoring defense, total defense and rushing defense, and fourth in pass defense.
They’re also first in pass efficiency, pass efficiency defense, punt returns and turnover margin. They’re tied with Southern in fewest sacks allowed.
Though the Jaguars don’t rank as high, they’re generally in the top four in the major categories and have ranked even higher during their win streak.
But in the first game, they bottomed out in a lot of ways as the Braves gained 682 yards, including 410 on the ground. Alcorn’s John Gibbs Jr. passed for 224 yards and a touchdown and ran for 34 yards and a score.
“We’ve got to be able to stop the run,” Southern linebacker Brian McCain said. “Their quarterback is a great player. He gets the ball out quick, but we’ve got to be able to get pressure on him. They average over 300 pounds on the offensive line. They have a lot of big guys up front, so we’ve got to make sure we keep our feet moving and play with high intensity.”
Southern freshman quarterback Austin Howard has played seven games since the loss at Alcorn and his steady maturation has showed, though he was pretty hyper leading up to kickoff of the Bayou Classic against Grambling last week in New Orleans.
Odums said he asked volunteer coach Dray Joseph, who quarterbacked the Jaguars to the SWAC title last year, to talk to Howard before kickoff “because he was bouncing off the walls.”
Howard settled down and was named the team’s MVP in the 52-45 victory after passing for 258 yards and three touchdowns, completing 14 of 23 with one interception.
“He’s got a chance to do something that hasn’t been done in a long time: be a freshman that wins the championship,” Odums said. “He’s outstanding. I think when you look at his numbers, they’re right up there with anybody else who’s playing well.”
In the first meeting, Howard was making just his second start and was hampered by a running game limited by three sidelined running back and playing from behind most of the game. He completed just 15 of 35 passes for 188 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.
Southern hopes to ride the momentum of its West Division title-clinching victory last week. Alcorn had an open date last week after squandering an 11-point lead in the final five minutes against Jackson State, two weeks after the Braves had secured their spot in the title game. Their other losses this season were by six points at Southern Miss and seven points at Grambling.
“We feel we had an opportunity to be undefeated, but we’re not,” Alcorn coach Jay Hopson said. “We’re 9-3 because we didn’t do the things that we needed to do in order to win those games.”
Hopson noted that last season the Braves played in front of 55,000 at Mississippi State and in an NFL venue — Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium — against Grambling in the Circle City Classic.
“We’ve played in those kinds of environments,” he said, “but at the end of the day, it’s just a football game and the winner is going to be whoever plays the best between the lines.”
McCain said the Jaguars also have to avoid letting the big stage adversely affect them.
“We want to use that high energy coming off the win last week and continue it this week,’” McCain said, “but we have to make sure we don’t blow an engine pregame.”
Follow Les East on Twitter @EastAdvocate.