His Bulldogs faced Southern next, and Jones didn’t sense they were taking the game seriously.
“To be honest with you, our guys were not impressed with what they saw, and they tried to just show up and ... win,” Jones said. “And that don’t happen. If you don’t show up to play, you don’t win.”
He was right.
The Jaguars scored three first-half touchdowns and cruised to an easy 21-6 victory. That left Alabama A&M at 0-2, its season already at a crossroads.
The Bulldogs definitely didn’t look like they were headed to the Southwestern Athletic Conference Championship Game.
But here they are. With a stirring rebound, Alabama A&M won eight of its next nine games to claim the Eastern Division title.
At noon Saturday in Birmingham, Ala., the Bulldogs (8-3) square off against Grambling (7-4) for the SWAC title (on ESPNU).
It is, without much doubt, a fitting matchup.
Since the championship game’s inception in 1999, Alabama A&M and Grambling have made more appearances than any other SWAC teams. The Tigers are 5-1 in these games, including three straight titles from 2000-02, during Doug Williams’ first coaching stint. A&M is 1-4 under both Jones and former coach Ron Cooper, now LSU’s secondary coach, and got its only win against Arkansas-Pine Bluff in 2006.
One other similarity: This season, the Bulldogs and Tigers took very similar paths to Legion Field.
Williams started his second coaching term at Grambling with an ugly win over Alcorn State. Then the Tigers followed with four straight losses.
This was not what voters had in mind during the preseason, when they picked the Tigers to win the Western Division.
But Grambling rebounded in fine fashion, as well.
The Tigers ripped off six consecutive wins, capping their regular season with a 36-12 pasting of Southern at the Bayou Classic.
“These young guys did not give up during those first five games. And I think that in itself is a testament to the character of this football team,” Williams said. “I think no matter what happens on Saturday, you’ve got to give them credit for what they are, and getting to go to the championship game.”
Credit has go to Alabama A&M, as well. The Bulldogs were coming off a 3-8 record last season — an uncharacteristically bad showing under Jones, who’s now in his 10th year.
After their 0-2 start, Jones said, the team simply went back to fundamentals, placing an emphasis on a physical ground game and aggressive defense — two trademarks of the Jones era.
The Bulldogs rely heavily on tailback Kaderius Lacey, who leads the SWAC with 1,057 rushing yards.
“Lacey will wear ... you ... down,” Williams said, pausing for effect. “It’s hard to put your arms around him. He’s not an easy guy to tackle. He’s like a little tank. He’s kind of like that little guy in Atlanta (Falcons running back Michael Turner). He’s one of them Turner the Burner types of guys. You can’t just go up there and get him with an arm-tackle.”
Grambling, with a sturdy defense and up-and-down offense, made a timely discovery when it starting using sophomore tailback Dawrence Roberts.
He now ranks second in the conference with 1,039 rushing yards. Roberts served as a security blanket while Grambling’s freshman quarterbacks, Frank Rivers and D.J. Williams, settled in.
The Tigers have apparently settled on D.J. Williams — yes, he’s the coach’s son — who went bombs away on Southern, throwing three touchdown passes to star wideout Mario Louis.
Louis, a walk-on who never played football in high school, has 17 touchdowns this season. With three more, he can break the school record of 19 set in 2005 by Henry Tolbert.
These teams met Sept. 24 in Grambling, where the Bulldogs grabbed their first-ever win at Eddie Robinson Stadium 20-14.
In that meeting, A&M stuck to its rock-’em-sock-’em style, and it worked well for them.
The offense rushed for 258 yards on 43 carries, and the defense forced eight turnovers — yes, that’s eight — in a hard-earned win.
With all that in mind, Grambling’s keys to victory are actually very simple.
“We’ve got to stop the run,” linebacker Cliff Exama said. “The problem we had in the first game was, we didn’t stop the run like we needed to. If we can stop the run and turn them into a passing team, we’ll be able to get the job done and win the championship.”
Just a few months ago, that didn’t seem possible.