Southern and Grambling will meet next Saturday on the Mercedes-Benz Superdome turf with a postseason berth on the line, marking the third time in the past four seasons the Bayou Classic will decide the Southwestern Athletic Conference’s Western Division title.
The two programs have achieved a desirable level of consistency under coaches Dawson Odums and Broderick Fobbs. Not counting their matchups against each other, the two programs have combined to go 55-5 against SWAC competition since Fobbs took over at Grambling in 2014.
“In (2016), they didn’t lose a conference game; we lost one,” said Odums, Southern's coach. “You look at this year, they haven’t lost a game, we lost one. You figure that during that stretch, if you were to take the conference teams and rank them top to bottom, we would probably be No. 2.”
But the two programs have taken different routes on their ascent to the SWAC peak, and it is evidenced by their rosters this season.
Southern expected a lot out of Demerio Houston this season, and a few weeks ago against Arkansas-Pine Bluff, he truly realized his potential.
Home grown vs. outsourced
Two of Grambling’s most important players started their college careers elsewhere.
Quarterback Devante Kincade, the SWAC's reigning offensive player of the year, came to Grambling after two years at Ole Miss. He currently leads the SWAC in yards passing (2,238) and touchdowns (18) and has thrown only three interceptions in 278 attempts.
Linebacker De’Arius Christmas came to Grambling from East Mississippi Community College and has starred in his first season with the Tigers, ranking among the SWAC leaders in tackles (71), tackles for loss (13.5) and fumbles forced (2).
They represent the fruits of a tactic that has worked out well for Grambling: Of the 96 players listed on Grambling’s official roster, 22 are transfers, eight of whom came from Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) schools like Kincade.
[Map of where Grambling players are from]
“I don’t know if there’s ever a coach in college football that’s not going to try to recruit the best players he can for this program, so why wouldn’t I go after the best players?” Fobbs said earlier this year at SWAC media day. “It doesn’t matter where they come from; I’m going after the best players. If they happen to be transfers, they happen to be transfers.
“We’re trying to put the best product on the field. A lot of those really good players go to certain institutions. So if you have an opportunity to pluck some of them, of course, you go and get them.”
Southern represents a stark contrast.
Of the 95 players listed on Southern’s official roster, just five started their careers at a different institution, with reserve running back Tevin Horton (UL-Monroe) as the only one who played at an FBS institution.
Odums actively avoids pursuing transfers for his football program for a couple of reasons. First, it gives him continuity from class to class, so as not to be put in a position where he is replacing too large a chunk of his football team.
Second, by recruiting high school players, he gets a full four to five years to make an impression.
“I think we try to create a culture that says they love being at Southern and they love being a Southern football player,” Odums said. “I think you create that culture when guys are able to come in as freshmen, and they can grow and grow together.
“… I’m trying to shape young men for the future, and I think that’s what our program does. … It’s important to be with those guys for four years. I think it creates some stability in the locker room, and it gives you a sense of a father raising sons.”
[Map of where Southern players are from]
Geography also has played a large role in how these two Louisiana programs constructed their roster. Put the home towns of the players from both teams on a map, and it’s clear to see which roads are traversed by the respective coaching staffs.
Southern is ideally located in the middle of the talent-rich I-10 corridor. It is four hours east of Houston and a little more than an hour west of New Orleans.
More than a quarter of Southern’s roster hails from places located just a few miles from I-10, with major hot spots in Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Houston — also, certainly, strong bases for alumni.
Considering its location in south Louisiana, Southern’s roster is largely composed of Louisiana kids. Sixty of Southern’s 95 players played high school football in Louisiana.
[Southern roster breakdown by state]
Included in that figure is senior quarterback Austin Howard, who played at nearby West St. John High and has since gone on to break Southern’s career records in yards passing and touchdowns.
“My philosophy since I’ve been here is that I think we owe it to the taxpayers of the state of Louisiana that we recruit the state of Louisiana,” Odums said. “We try to do our best to make sure we recruit the players in state.
“That doesn’t mean you’re going to get all the players in Louisiana because guys still have to say yes, and guess what? Some guys say no.”
Grambling also has its interstate corridor to follow.
Its campus is bordered by I-20. Follow the road three-and-a-half hours to the west, and you’ll arrive in Dallas. Talent-laden Monroe is just 40 minutes to the east.
Like Southern, a significant chunk of Grambling’s roster hails from places that I-20 runs through. Unlike Southern, Grambling relies more heavily on out-of-state talent.
Less than 50 percent of Grambling’s roster (47 of 96) played high school football in Louisiana. Texas (20), Georgia (9) and Alabama (8) account for 38.5 percent of Grambling’s roster construction.
[Grambling roster breakdown by state]