HOUSTON — As Grambling cruised its way to an undefeated record in the Southwestern Athletic Conference, one speed bump almost derailed the ride.
While the Tigers won eight of their nine conference games by double digits, Grambling needed a blocked extra-point attempt in overtime to beat Alcorn State on Oct. 17.
On Saturday in the SWAC Championship Game, the two schools will get to play at least four more quarters with much higher stakes.
Not only will the winner at NRG Stadium be crowned SWAC champion, the victor will get to play in the inaugural Celebration Bowl in Atlanta on Dec. 19.
“We look at it just like all of the FBS schools look at it: It’s a bowl game, and that’s exciting,” Grambling coach Broderick Fobbs said at the SWAC Championship Game news conference Friday.
“Right now we are here to win our conference championship, and then we can focus on the bowl game.”
To win, Grambling (9-2, 9-0 SWAC) will have to beat last year’s champion, as the Braves (8-3, 7-2) knocked off Southern in the 2014 title game.
“You hope some of the settings are similar and hope that gives you a little bit of an advantage,” Alcorn coach Jay Hopson said, “but at the end of the day, it is a different year and a different situation.”
For Grambling, the situation is strikingly different from two years ago when the Tigers hit rock bottom with a 1-11 season that included three head coaches and a player boycott that led to a forfeit.
Fobbs was hired in 2014 and has brought the team back to the top. In the Bayou Classic last week, Grambling stormed from behind to drop Southern 34-23.
“It is a total ... turnaround with coach Fobbs,” senior defensive lineman and Zachary native Jevonte Williams said. “There is discipline, consistency and just a different mindset.
“I can’t imagine coming this far from where we were two years ago. It’s a huge blessing.”
SWAC offensive player of the year Johnathan Williams has been a key leader in the success.
The senior quarterback has thrown for 2,910 yards and 38 touchdowns, while completing 57 percent of his passes.
His top target is Baton Rouge native Chad Williams, who has 948 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns on the year. Martez Carter leads the team with 851 rushing yards and nine scores.
“The talent has always been there, it was just a matter of us believing in one another and playing together as one,” Johnathan Williams said. “The togetherness of our team and the great coaching staff has made a difference.”
For Alcorn, this year’s team looks very similar to last year’s championship team.
In 2014, Alcorn finished 7-2 and was just 10 points shy of being 9-0.
This season, the Braves finished 7-2, just seven points from being 9-0.
The Braves are led by quarterback John Gibbs Jr., running back Darryan Ragsdale (956 yards, seven TDs) and SWAC newcomer of the year Marquis Warford (418 receiving yards, two TDs).
Alcorn also has the conference’s No. 1 defense led by all-SWAC first-team selections Darien Moody, Stacy Garner, Damon Watkins and Warren Gatewood.
Despite beating the Braves in the regular season, Fobbs didn’t think his team put forth its best effort.
“I think the illusion is because we won the game, we played well,” Fobbs said. “I didn’t think we played very well — particularly in the first half. We learned a lot from that and we understand we dodged a bullet. We will need to play considerably better if we want to get to the next step.”
That next step would be to Atlanta in the Celebration Bowl against MEAC champion North Carolina A&T — a team led by ex-Grambling coach Rod Broadway.
A Grambling victory Saturday would also be a huge jump toward bringing the program back to prominence.
“It has been a stellar year for our program,” Fobbs said. “I felt very confident in our blueprint for success. I’m very pleased with what we’ve been able to accomplish, but we still have a few more steps to go. We will definitely have our hands full with Alcorn. ”
Grambling and Alcorn players will wear “33” helmet stickers in honor of SU player Devon Gales, who suffered a spinal injury Sept. 26 at Georgia. ... Grambling is 5-1 in SWAC title games but has not played in one since 2011. ... Alcorn State won its only appearance in the game last year. ... Defending champions are 2-3 in attempts to repeat. Grambling is the only repeat champ, doing it twice in 2001 and 2002. ... Grambling’s 20-3 deficit against Southern last week was its largest of the season. The Tigers outscored SU 31-3 the rest of the way.