There wasn’t a whole lot of doubt that, when the smoke cleared Saturday, Southern and Grambling would officially be headed to a showdown in the Bayou Classic on Nov. 29.
The annual matchup in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome was almost certainly going to be a winner-take-all affair for the Southwestern Athletic Conference West Division championship and a berth in the conference’s title game.
After all, the defending conference champion Jaguars had won five games in a row and were hosting the least successful team in the league, Mississippi Valley State, which was 1-7 in the conference heading into its season finale. All Southern had to do was win, and the Bayou Classic showdown would be assured.
As it turned out, the Jaguars didn’t even need to beat the Delta Devils to stay alive in the division title chase, thanks to Alabama State knocking off Grambling before Southern even kicked off.
But as a practical matter, that upset didn’t make Southern’s game meaningless. In fact, it made it more meaningful.
Sure, it meant the Jaguars could still back into the division title match even if they stumbled against Valley, but it also provided an opportunity for them to show they have championship mettle, just like last year’s team.
Championship teams are constantly gauging themselves against themselves. They don’t pay a whole lot of attention to other teams and don’t gauge themselves strictly by the scoreboard.
They gauge themselves by their ability to improve consistently, to focus on shortcomings and how to improve them even as the victories mount, to constantly raise the bar.
The Jaguars began Saturday’s game like a team primed to make short work of their outmanned opponent, getting sacks on the first two plays. But a few defensive miscues allowed the Delta Devils to convert a third-and-29 and launch a 75-yard touchdown drive. A fumble led to another touchdown and a quick 13-0 deficit.
It would have been easy to assume Southern had allowed the Grambling loss to be a distraction, that it was looking past Valley to the Bayou Classic. But coach Dawson Odums was having none of that after the Jaguars answered Valley’s 13-0 run with a 44-0 run of their own the rest of the way.
“This team lives in the now,” he said. “We live in what’s in front of us, what’s important. The philosophy around here is, take care of business and just focus on the game that’s in front of you. If you look at the score and how the game was played, you can clearly see that our guys were not looking (ahead). They were focused on Valley. They wanted to play well tonight.”
Grambling’s loss meant Southern’s game was no longer an opportunity to guarantee a shot at the West title, but it didn’t mean it was no longer an opportunity for the Jaguars to prepare themselves to compete for that title.
They took advantage of that opportunity and looked ready to compete for the division title. Even after getting down 13-0, they won the game as basically as a team can win one — by blocking and tackling.
They pushed the Valley defense off the line of scrimmage and created big openings for Lenard Tillery, Malcolm Crockett, Tyre Bracken, Jamarcus Jarvis, Deonte Shorts and Herbert Edwards, rushing for 321 yards. They won the battle on the other line of scrimmage and tackled securely enough to allow just 113 yards in the final three quarters, during which the Devils didn’t score.
The bottom line on this game wasn’t the final score.
It was this: When Southern didn’t have to play its best — or even win — to ensure an opportunity to play for a championship, it did so anyway.