As a native of Montgomery, Ala., and an Alabama State alumnus, fifth-year coach Reggie Barlow knows full well that times have rarely been higher at his alma mater.
A new field house is up and running. Steel beams are rising on a state-of-the-art on-campus football stadium, which is scheduled to open late next year.
And right now, the Hornets haven’t lost a game in Southwestern Athletic Conference play.
Yet as the next game approaches, Barlow is concerned. He usually is. Such is life in the SWAC.
“I don’t think there’s one team in this league to where you can say, ?Oh, they’re so much better than everybody else,’” Barlow said. “So everybody has to play.”
But if all 10 teams are so similar, why, then, are the Hornets perfect in SWAC games so far?
Strong defense, sure. An improved offense, without doubt. Special teams are solid, too.
But there’s another little secret: Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. Lots of them.
After six weeks, Alabama State leads the nation with a plus-17 turnover margin, with 25 takeaways and only eight giveaways.
That certainly helps.
In the SWAC, when it comes to winning championships, takeaways matter.
Need proof? Take a look at the past five seasons.
In 2006, Alabama A&M finished 16th in the nation with a plus-8 turnover margin. A&M won the conference championship.
In 2008, Grambling finished first in the nation at plus-24. Grambling won the championship.
In 2009, Prairie View finished 15th nationally at plus-9. Prairie View won the championship.
Over the past five years, only two SWAC champions failed to finish in the top 20 nationally in turnover margin - but even in those years, something funny happened. Jackson State (53rd nationally) won the title in 2008, but it upset Grambling in the championship game - and Grambling finished 10th in turnover margin.
Then there was last season. Although champion Texas Southern ranked 97th nationally with minus-7 turnover margin, the Tigers prevailed largely because of a defense that ranked No. 1 in the Football Championship Subdivision, allowing 204.9 yards per game. (Incidentally, the Tigers had 36 takeaways.)
For his part, Barlow said he’s heard the old adage about turnovers coming in bunches.
But the coach believes that with his team, there’s more to it than chance or luck.
Barlow credited defensive coordinator Cedric Thornton and his staff for giving players a chance to be aggressive. But Barlow also gave high marks to the players themselves.
“They have to do the film work,” Barlow said. “I mean, naturally, they have the ability to break on balls and strip balls and all that stuff. But they’re watching film. The understand and recognize formations and what the offense is trying to do to them. So they’re doing a good job of it.”
It has certainly showed.
On Sept. 17, the Hornets played at Grambling, a place where they’ve rarely won. The score was tied at 10 heading into the fourth quarter - but ASU made interceptions on three straight possessions and won going away, 31-17.
On Sept. 24, the Hornets played on the road against Jackson State, the preseason favorite to finish first in the Eastern Division.
ASU had six interceptions against JSU quarterback Casey Therriault, and the Hornets held on for a 21-14 win.
At 1 p.m. Saturday in the old Cramton Bowl, they host Prairie View in a matchup of the SWAC’s two division leaders.
Prairie View has narrowly won three of its past four games. But there’s one thing the Panthers haven’t done very well this season: take care of the football.
They rank last in the SWAC with a minus-12 turnover margin. Which, of course, is a concern for first-year coach Heishma Northern.
How, then, do they handle ball-hawking Alabama State?
“The biggest thing is going in, settling down and playing your game, and not being overwhelmed by where you are,” Northern said. “That’s one of the things I talk to my guys about: We have to thrive on being in a hostile environment and not let it overwhelm you. I know there’s going to be a lot of people there, (because) they’re having a lot of success.”
Thanks, in large part, to those all-important turnovers.