This could have been a season of redemption for Stump Mitchell and the Southern football team.
In four Southwestern Athletic Conference games, the Jaguars were in a nip-and-tuck affair with their opponents, often holding a fourth-quarter lead.
Four times, they found new and creative ways to lose.
What would it mean, then, if Southern (4-6, 4-4) were to finish their schedule with a stirring win over archrival Grambling in the Bayou Classic? What if the Jaguars were to finish in a four-way tie for first place in the Western Division?
“Well, it would be a great thing because of where we’re at,” Mitchell said. “But we know we should’ve won it because of how we lost some games.”
OK, so maybe it’s a down year for the West.
All five teams used quarterbacks who were underclassmen, first-year starters or both. And at different points, three of the five teams — Prairie View, UAPB and Southern — had chances to take control of the race, only to blow their opportunities.
Perhaps fittingly, Grambling, which lost four of its first five games, now controls its own fate in the Western race. The Tigers found their form just in time, and they head into New Orleans this week on a five-game winning streak.
If they defeat Southern at 1:30 p.m. Saturday inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, they’ll clinch the West and a berth in the SWAC Championship Game against Alabama A&M.
If the Jaguars win, however, they’ll force a four-way tie atop the West with Grambling, UAPB and Prairie View.
UAPB would advance to the title game on tiebreakers.
Southern, on the other hand, could take comfort in knowing it went toe-to-toe with the SWAC’s top contenders.
In its last game, SU scored a 26-23 upset at Alabama State, which had the inside track at the Eastern Division title at the time. The Jaguars also defeated Alabama A&M, the eventual East champion, on Sept. 10.
Later, on Oct. 15, they scored a touchdown with no time remaining at Arkansas-Pine Bluff — but UAPB blocked the extra-point attempt, preserving a 22-21 win.
“If we beat those guys,” Mitchell said, referring to Grambling, “we would’ve beaten three of the top four (teams).”
WR Green will play
Senior receiver Jared Green, who missed Southern’s previous game in what Mitchell called a coach’s decision, will play Saturday in the Superdome, Mitchell said.
Green, the 6-foot-1, 184-pound son of Hall of Fame cornerback Darrell Green, had emerged late in the season as a home-run threat, making 11 catches for 219 yards and two touchdowns over a three-game stretch that began Oct. 15 at Arkansas-Pine Bluff. But he sat out the Jaguars’ game at Alabama State.
Charles Hawkins took Green’s place and had career-highs with seven catches for 121 yards.
Both receivers expect to play Saturday.
Others back in fold
Mitchell said offensive linemen Zach Brown and Taylon Jones should also be able to play Saturday if needed.
Brown, a freshman guard, has struggled with a left ankle injury since his first game Sept. 24 against Florida A&M. Jones, a sophomore who has played guard and tackle, left the Alabama State game with what appeared to be an ankle injury.
Brown and Jones were at practice Wednesday.
Traé Tiller, a reserve defensive tackle, should be able to return, as well. Tiller has played one series since he suffered an ankle injury in early October.
The Bayou Classic will give Mitchell his sixth chance to start his first winning streak at Southern. In two seasons, the Jaguars have failed to win back-to-back games.
The closest Southern came to a winning streak was earlier this season. After posting a 21-6 win over Alabama A&M — the eventual Eastern Division champion — the Jaguars hosted Jackson State the following week. SU had a three-point lead on JSU for much of the fourth quarter but gave up a touchdown with 4:36 remaining and lost, 28-24.
Later, after a 28-21 win at Mississippi Valley State, the Jaguars were locked in a fourth-quarter tie with Prairie View. But the Panthers kicked a field goal in the closing minute to win, 23-20.
Though this is technically not Doug Williams’ first season as Grambling coach — he led the Tigers from 1998-2003, producing three SWAC titles — he might want to note that Grambling first-year coaches are 1-2 at the Bayou Classic. Eddie Robinson, of course, was in place long before the Classic began. Williams lost his 1998 debut, 26-14. His cousin, Melvin Spears, beat Southern 24-13 in 2004, his first season. Spears’ successor, Rod Broadway, lost 22-13 in 2007 before winning the next three Classics.
Southern first-year coaches are 3-4 in the Bayou Classic. Coaches who won their debut include Otis Washington in 1981 (50-20), Marino Casem in ’87 (27-21) and Pete Richardson in ’93 (31-13). Losing coaches include Mitchell last season (38-17), Casem in ’92 (he served as interim coach for one year, losing 30-27), Gerald Kimble in ’89 (25-13) and Cass Jackson in ’78 (28-15).
Southern plans to wear white jerseys and white pants at the Bayou Classic for the first time this season. … Saturday’s game includes two of the SWAC’s best linebackers — Grambling’s Cliff Exama, who has 122 tackles (12.2 per game), and SU’s Jamie Payton, who has 78 stops (9.8 per game). ... Southern leads the SWAC in kickoff returns, averaging 22.8 yards per attempt. Grambling leads the SWAC in punt returns at 16.3 yards per attempt.