BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - No chance at a Western Division title. No chance to reach the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship game. No ring in sight.
It’s still July, still a few weeks before Southern football players even look at a kicking tee, much less crank up preseason practice. Already, they know that their top two goals - the division title, the conference title - are out of reach this season, thanks to last month’s vote by SWAC presidents and chancellors to keep them out of the 2011 championship game.
So what’s the point, then? What will the Jaguars use as motivation to keep working, keep playing, keep fighting on every down, from the season opener until the Bayou Classic?
Second-year coach Stump Mitchell said he has the answer. In so many words, he borrowed a line from Herm Edwards: You play to win the game. “Man, we’ve got some guys, between now and the end of the season, who have to make a statement,” Mitchell said Tuesday at the SWAC’s annual preseason media gathering.
“We have a few seniors who (are) hoping they can get a shot at the next level. The only way they can do that is, we have to put up some numbers.”
Better numbers, certainly, than the Jaguars produced during Mitchell’s painful first season.
One year ago, here in Birmingham, Mitchell made a bold statement at media day - that his Jaguars might go undefeated and win a conference championship in his first year at SU.
Cue the sad music. Cue the slow-motion images of players on the sideline at A.W. Mumford Stadium, their heads hanging after another gruesome loss. Cue a graphic of the team’s 2010 record: 2-9, the worst mark in school history.
If that weren’t discouraging enough, another round of rough news came in May, when the NCAA handed Southern and Jackson State one-year postseason bans because of substandard scores in the Academic Progress Rate from 2006-09.
The NCAA ban doesn’t cover the SWAC championship game, which is technically an extension of the regular season. But last month, conference presidents and chancellors voted to prohibit any team facing a postseason ban from its SWAC title game - effectively shutting out Southern and Jackson State, two programs with a combined 29 championships, not to mention super-strong fan bases.
Mitchell, who enters the second year of a three-year contract, was not a fan of the decision. Tuesday afternoon, the coach said he’s still hoping that “maybe they’ll rescind that vote” at some point, though that seems like a long shot.
Even if they don’t, the Jaguars have to demonstrate, little by little, that they’re actually a contender (for what it’s worth, voters predicted a fifth-place finish in the SWAC preseason poll).
SU can only improve, Mitchell said, if the offense is more efficient, if the defense gives up fewer big plays, and if the team stops drawing so many yellow flags (SU lost more yards from penalties last season than any team in the league).
“We have to have everybody working on one accord,” Mitchell said, “and I think now that the guys are starting to understand and appreciate one another.”
In the meantime, SU and JSU have to find a new, unique rallying cry for 2011. Football coaches and players often say they compete for one reason: The ring’s the thing.
This time, Southern and Jackson State have to play for something else.
Typically bitter rivals, they have found something on which to agree: Both teams should strive to win, and to win a lot. That way, when fans leave the stadium on a given Saturday, they’ll know which team was better - regardless of things like championships and rings.
JSU coach Rick Comegy, who enters the final year of his contract - said his team held a meeting shortly after the SWAC penalty came out. There, players discussed what kind of season they wanted to have. Comegy said they all settled on one thing: Summertime is way too early to throw in a towel.
“So we don’t get the hardware,” Comegy said.
“I have trophies in my room that I’ve won that are broken down in the corner. But the memories that I have, being with the guys I’ve played with, and the success that we can have - you can never take that away. That’s what these guys are all about.”
The SWAC’s decision hit Jackson State especially hard. JSU finished 8-3 last season and was within a whisker of reaching the title game. With a more experienced defense and a star quarterback in Casey Therriault, the preseason offensive player of the year, the Tigers had a very real chance at winning their first SWAC championship since 2007.
Now they don’t.
As for the Jaguars, their first goal must be a little less ambitious.
They must prove they can win more than two games.
“Overall, we might feel better with a winning season,” left tackle Chris Browne said. “Personally, I set my goals high. ... Nobody except you is going to believe your goals, but I wanted to go undefeated last year. And I don’t want to lose to anybody. I’ll say that every time. I don’t care who it is. I don’t care if we’re playing Ohio State. I just want to win.”