How does it feel?
What’s it like when the biggest game of the season - any season, for that matter - is almost at hand?
Saturday morning, in the hours leading up to the Bayou Classic, the magnitude, the grandeur of the event doesn’t yet hit the Southern football team.
Usually, as the bus nears the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, players do what they do before any game. They fill their ears with mindless chatter and iPod music. They stare out the windows. They fiddle with their cell phones.
Then, almost all at once, the moment of clarity arrives.
The Superdome exit approaches. The Jaguars see that giant white roof, the building in which they’ll face archrival Grambling at 1:30 p.m. Saturday.
That’s when they get it.
In a few short hours, they’ll square off against those hated Tigers.
“When we arrive at the dome, that’s when we wake up,” senior safety Demetric Rogers said. “When we come down that ramp, see that exit and see the dome ... you know it’s not much time before you’re about to get it on.”
Yes, players on both sides have had two weeks to think about it; two weeks to visualize making a big hit or a big play on the biggest stage in black college football.
Even with the high stakes, Southern and Grambling won’t play before a sellout crowd in the Superdome.
But a national television audience is watching on NBC, as well.
Players know it. The cameras, the dome, the bands - they can feel the buildup.
So for a few hours, forget about records and championships. As far as fans and alumni are concerned, each season, this is the thing that matters most.
As Southern left tackle Chris Browne, a Cleveland native, put it this week: “It’s safe to say that 100 percent of my teammates came to SU for this one game.”
Of course, when the Jaguars (4-6, 4-4 Southwestern Athletic Conference) and the Tigers (6-4, 5-3) collide Saturday afternoon, there’s more on the line than school pride.
Nine months ago, Grambling legend Doug Williams agreed to returned for a second coaching stint at his alma mater, though he cautioned it might take time for his young Tigers to become a championship-caliber team.
He was right. Grambling - quarterbacked by two freshman, Frank Rivers and Doug Williams’ own son, D.J. - lost four of its first five games.
Almost completely out of the Western Division race by October, the Tigers roared to life.
Armed with a sturdy defense, strong running game and solid special teams, they head into Superdome on a five-game winning streak.
With a victory over Southern, they will clinch the Western title and a berth in the SWAC Championship Game on Dec. 10.
“As you all know, I played for Eddie Robinson,” Williams said. “Coach Rob used to say that the credit goes to the man in the arena. I think the man in the arena has definitely gotten it done the last five weeks.”
Then again, if they don’t get it done this week, their season is over.
A loss Saturday would leave Grambling out of the SWAC title game. It would create a four-way tie atop the West between Southern, Grambling, Prairie View and Arkansas-Pine Bluff - and in that scenario, because of tiebreakers, UAPB would face Eastern champion Alabama A&M in the title game.
It’s also not lost on the Jaguars that if they win Saturday, wrapping up a season that’s been mixed with surprising victories and disappointing fourth-quarter meltdowns, they could say they’re a first-place team.
Southern, coming off a 26-23 upset at Alabama State on Nov. 12, could win back-to-back games for the first time in the Stump Mitchell era.
“This is a big game for the university,” junior receiver Charles Hawkins said. “We need to bring that winning enthusiasm back to Southern, and it starts with the Bayou Classic.”
Sixteen months ago, Mitchell - then in his first season as Southern’s coach - boldly predicted his team could go undefeated.
A few months later, on the ground level inside the Superdome, Mitchell was badly in need of a hug.
His team suffered a 38-17 loss to Grambling in last year’s Classic, the final insult in a 2-9 season.
This season, the Jaguars aren’t eligible to play in the SWAC championship game, thanks to their low APR score.
They were docked nine scholarships and one day of practice time per week.
Despite all that, they had only themselves to blame for not clinching first place in the West already.
“What we can do is set a standard for next year, to build up some momentum,” said Rogers, who won’t be around next year, no matter what happens in this game.
A senior from Northeast High, Rogers said he’s not only a distant relative of Doug Williams, but that he and D.J. Williams sometimes used to play backyard football as kids in Zachary, where Doug Williams still owns a home.
In other words, Saturday’s game is personal for Rogers - not only because of personal ties, but because of a feeling he’s never experienced at the Bayou Classic.
Rogers has never beaten Grambling.
The Tigers have won three straight meetings in the Superdome. A win this season would give Grambling its first four-game winning streak in the Classic since 1983-86.
As for Rogers, he and his teammates already know what it’s like in the hours and minutes leading up to kickoff.
Inside the locker room, just before the Jaguars take the field, some players will feel queasy. Others will listen to iPods, their eyes closed, trying to envision those first few plays.
The cameras. The dome. The bands. They can feel kickoff approaching.
The biggest game of the season is almost here.
“For me, I love playing at home, in front of my family,” said Hawkins, a New Orleans native. “But I also want to win for the (seniors). And everyone in the locker room feels the same way.”