Southern has entered the high-stakes arena of Southwestern Athletic Conference football, where one loss can signal the end of your postseason aspirations.
All of Southern’s six remaining games are against SWAC teams, starting with a homecoming matchup against Alabama A&M (2-3, 2-0) at 6 p.m. Saturday.
The margin for error is minimal for Southern (2-3, 0-1) and other SWAC schools at this stage of the season. Its most experienced players are intimately aware of that fact.
“The good thing about it is we’ve got enough seniors on this football team who have been through the fire,” Southern coach Dawson Odums said. “They understand what it’s all about.”
This is senior quarterback Austin Howard’s fourth time entering this dance, and he has seen all the ways it can unfold.
Southern started 1-1 in the SWAC in Howard’s freshman year, 2014, needing to rip off seven straight wins to secure a spot in the SWAC championship game. The Jaguars did just that, cinching it up with a white-knuckle Bayou Classic win.
In his sophomore year, the Jaguars won six SWAC games by an average of 26.3 points per game, but the season was considered a disappointment because it also included losses to the three teams ahead of them in the standings.
Then there was last season, when Southern took an undefeated league record into its final game, only to have its SWAC championship game hopes ripped away in a 52-30 loss to rival Grambling.
After rushing for 851 yards and nine touchdowns and earning Southwestern Athletic Conference…
Those experiences explain why Howard summed up in one word what six straight SWAC games mean.
“Playoffs,” Howard said.
It’s October. For Southern, this time of year essentially means win or spend December watching other teams fight to keep their season alive.
This juncture is especially critical considering Southern is already trying to make up ground.
With the goal being to represent the SWAC’s Western Division in the conference championship game, Southern put itself in an unenviable position by dropping its first league game to Alcorn State.
Going back to when the SWAC first split into divisions in 1999, only three Western Division teams — Arkansas-Pine Bluff in 2006, Grambling in 2011 and Southern in 2013 — won the division with more than one conference loss.
Southern prides itself on its ability to focus on each individual game. It has successfully navigated the conference waters under Odums, going 27-8 against SWAC teams since 2013, by not letting big-picture goals distract from the task at hand.
“We still strive to go 1-0 every week; that’s been the game plan from the beginning of the season,” senior defensive end Aaron Tiller said. “That’s the goal, that’s the mission, every week, 1-0.
“This week, we want to go 1-0, and then keep following up with the same game plan every week.”
Southern senior cornerback Danny Johnson has touched the ball nine times with an opportunity…
At the same time, it’s October, and Southern knows that in this high-stakes game, those 1-0 weeks need to stack up.
“You’ve got to win out,” said senior offensive lineman Christian Rodriguez. “That’s the mentality we’ve had all week, too; we’ve been practicing like it’s playoff time.
“We can’t afford mistakes. Those mistakes we had, Games 1-5, whatever it might be, we’ve got to get away from that.”