Welcome back to the Bayou Classic.
If you’re among those who have been away from recent editions of the Southern-Grambling football rivalry, this is one you don’t want to miss. Kickoff is 1:30 p.m. Saturday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
This is what the highest-profile football event featuring two historically black colleges and universities was designed to be and often was before both programs took turns having down seasons in recent years, diluting enthusiasm for the game.
“This is what it’s all about,” Jaguars coach Dawson Odums said. “We’ve got to play our rival in New Orleans for a chance to go back to a championship. I think it’s a great environment.
“I think it’s what players come to Southern and Grambling for — to play in the Bayou Classic, but play in the Bayou Classic when it means something. And this year it means a lot.”
It means the Southwestern Athletic Conference West Division championship. The Jaguars are 8-3 and 7-1, and the Tigers are 7-4 and 7-1. The winner meets East Division champion Alcorn State for the conference title next Saturday in Houston.
Grambling has won six SWAC titles and Southern three since the championship game was introduced in 1999. Both teams have won 20 games in the Bayou Classic.
“It’s history in the making,” Southern running back Lenard Tillery said. “It’s great to see this happening again while you’re playing in it.”
Southern receiver Justin Morgan said he has heard from friends as far away as Ohio and Michigan who were planning to attend the game, even though they have no significant ties to either school.
“I can’t even explain it,” Morgan said. “There are some people that are so ready. You’ve got Southern and Grambling, who used to be big-time schools in the SWAC, and now they’re back on top. So that, tied in with us being tied for first and them being undefeated for so long (this season), it’s going to be a big-time game.”
Last season, the Jaguars beat the Tigers 40-17 in a title-game tune-up that brought to an end a 1-10 disaster of a season for Grambling. The Tigers’ turnaround under first-year coach Broderick Fobbs, a finalist for the Eddie Robinson Award as the best coach in the Football Championship Subdivision, has been one of the more remarkable stories of the college football season.
They won their first two conference games and took over sole possession of first place in the West when Southern lost its second conference game to Alcorn State. They won five more conference games in a row to stay a game ahead of the Jaguars before losing to Alabama State in their most recent game two weeks ago, allowing Southern to forge a tie with its sixth consecutive victory.
Grambling was picked to finish last in the West this season in the wake of the meltdown last season, something Fobbs put to rest shortly after arriving back on the campus where he and his father, Lee, played under Eddie Robinson.
“The first thing we did is we talked about it and, after we talked about it, that was it,” Fobbs said. “We were done with 2013, and we haven’t talked about 2013 since. Our focus from then on was about making sure we put a good plan together, making sure our kids go to class, making sure they lift weights the right way and play the game the right way. So we’ve been fortunate and the guys have bought into our system and we’ve been successful.
“I think what’s important for us is to make sure that we put our plan in. It’s more about us making sure that we’re doing what we’re supposed to do. If we play the way we’re capable of playing, then we’ll have a really good chance of winning the ballgame.”
Southern, of course, feels the same way.
“It’s real simple,” Odums said. “As we told our players, ‘You win, you move on. How do we go about winning this game? Doing the things that we coach you to do.’ That’s really what they’ve got to do. The team that can control its composure in this game is going to be the team that plays really well. We pride ourselves on doing that. We pride ourselves on being a disciplined football team.”
A win in the Bayou Classic has been enough to soothe a lot of wounds at the end of some bad seasons for both Southern and Grambling.
But this is different.
“The Bayou Classic is the game we play for throughout the whole year,” Jaguars defensive back Jaleel Richardson said. “The goal at the end of the year is to get to the championship, but a winning season and the Bayou Classic come first.”
This year, they’re all wrapped into one.
Follow Les East on Twitter: @EastAdvocate