Southern finally caught Grambling.
After the Jaguars lost at Alcorn State on Sept. 27 in their second Southwestern Athletic Conference game of the season, they spent six weeks behind the Tigers in the Western Division standings.
The defending division and conference champions went from being the hunted to being the hunter.
Grambling, which won just one game last season and was picked to finish last this season, grabbed some attention when it won its conference opener at defending Eastern Division champion Jackson State. That outcome wasn’t surprising just because it defied the disparate expectations for the two teams. Grambling’s woes last season were crystallized by a forfeit loss when players refused to make the trip to Jackson State as a protest against working conditions they deemed unacceptable.
The forfeit ruined Jackson State’s homecoming and the belated matchup was one that Jackson State had eagerly awaited for nearly a year.
When Grambling, which had lost its three nonconference games by an average margin of 25 points, left Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium with a 40-35 win, few realized the outcome was a trend-setter rather than an aberration.
The Tigers went on to beat Prairie View and Alabama A&M before hosting Alcorn State just two weeks after the Braves had blasted the Jaguars 56-16 and nine days after they took control of the East with a 33-7 beating of preseason favorite Alabama State. Grambling raced to a 21-0 lead and held on for a 28-21 victory that erased any lingering doubt about the team’s legitimacy as a championship contender.
Then came more wins against Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Texas Southern and Mississippi Valley State.
Southern remained on the Tigers heels, but in a precarious position. As long as the Jaguars kept winning, they maintained control of their fate. The regular season-ending game against Grambling would give Southern the opportunity to negate its conference loss and advance to the SWAC title game by virtue of the head-to-head tiebreaker.
But the Jaguars played five straight games also knowing that a loss could cost them control of their fate.
“We were playing playoff games every week,” Southern coach Dawson Odums said.
The Jaguars bounced back from the Alcorn State loss to beat Arkansas-Pine Bluff. At the same time Grambling was beating Alcorn, Southern was in danger of losing control of its fate when it fell behind Alabama A&M 34-14 on the road before rallying to win by a point on a last-minute touchdown.
Next came less stressful victories against Jackson State, Alabama State and Texas Southern.
Then Grambling finally blinked. The Tigers suffered their first conference loss of the season last Saturday, falling at home to Alabama State 37-23.
Grambling coach Broderick Fobbs said his team had become “complacent” in recent weeks and the loss was deserved but perhaps just what the Tigers needed.
Finally, Southern was even in the loss column in the standings and actually could have lost to Mississippi Valley State later that day and still played for the West title in the Bayou Classic.
But the Jaguars didn’t lose, extending their win streak to six games by beating the Delta Devils 44-13.
Now Southern and Grambling have open dates this weekend.
Then when they take the field in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for the Bayou Classic, both teams will do so on equal footing for the first time in 63 days.
The Jaguars and the Tigers are both 7-1, and there won’t be any need for a tiebreaker after the Bayou Classic.
The winner claims an outright division championship and moves on to play Alcorn State in the SWAC Championship Game on Dec. 6 in Houston.
“After you get embarrassed in a game like that,” Southern wide receiver Justin Morgan said of the Alcorn game, “it really can’t get worse so you have no choice but to go up. We just focused on getting better every week and did what we had to do to get where we’re at.”
For Southern, a second consecutive West Division title would provide a chance to avenge the thrashing it took in Lorman, Mississippi, just as last season it avenged a regular-season loss to Jackson State by beating the Tigers in the title game.
For Grambling it would mean the challenge of trying to beat for a second time a Braves team that has not lost to any other SWAC opponent.
Follow Les East on Twitter: @EastAdvocate.