In last year’s Bayou Classic, Grambling did to Southern what Southern had been doing to other teams all season — it capitalized on just about every Southern mistake.
The Jaguars led all Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) teams with 32 forced turnovers last season, but in the 2016 Bayou Classic it was Grambling that made those turnovers count.
A promising 12-play, 88-yard Southern drive ended in the first quarter when Austin Howard fumbled at the 1-yard line. On the Jaguars’ next drive, a Howard interception turned into a short field and a Grambling touchdown.
“If you look at the turning point in the game a year ago, it was turnovers,” said Southern coach Dawson Odums.
Southern is hoping to flip the script in this year’s edition of the game.
Entering Saturday, Grambling is leading the Southwestern Athletic Conference and is ranked second among FCS teams in turnover margin (+19). The Tigers’ 26 turnovers forced rank No. 6 nationally.
The Tigers have forced multiple turnovers in six of their contests, and have had three games where they forced four or more — including the Alcorn State game, when they recovered four fumbles and intercepted three passes.
“Their d-line is good, their linebacker corps is active, their secondary knows how to create turnovers — we’ve got to protect the ball,” said running back Herb Edwards.
“They know how to get after that ball.”
The Jaguars, too, know how to get after the ball.
Southern ranks just behind Grambling among SWAC teams in turnovers forced, with 22. And the Jaguars have been much better lately in terms of taking care of the ball, turning it over just six times in a six-game win streak.
“We’ve got to do a great job of protecting the football, and if we do that, I like our chances,” Odums said.
1: All on the line.
This is a familiar scenario, isn’t it? The team that wins Saturday gets to represent the SWAC west in the conference championship game. It will mark the 11th time in the 19-year history of the SWAC Championship Game that the winner of the Bayou Classic represented the west.
2: Offensive explosion?
Last season, Southern and Grambling combined for 82 points and more than 1,000 yards of offense. That might not be the case this year. Neither Southern nor Grambling have been as explosive offensively in 2017, though the Jaguars have averaged 510.7 yards per game in their last three games.
3: Outside matchup.
Grambling has had a hard time recovering from the loss of receivers Chad Williams and Verlan Hunter from last year’s team. The Tigers have tried to make up for the losses by spreading the ball around. Southern’s defensive secondary has been one of the stingiest in the SWAC.
4: Interior matchup.
Grambling leads all FCS teams in sacks per game (4), and has been on some kind of tear of late, recording at least five sacks in five of its last six games. After some early season stumbles, Southern has been much better protecting the quarterback lately, allowing 10 sacks in its last six games.
Numbers to know
17.7 — Grambling’s average margin of victory in its nine-game win streak.
15.8 — Southern’s average margin of victory in its six-game win streak.
24 — It has been 24 games since Grambling’s last SWAC loss, which came in the 2014 Bayou Classic.
Who has the edge?
Grambling’s Devante Kincade has taken a bit of a step back from his sterling debut season, and Southern’s Austin Howard is playing as well as anybody right now.
Yes, Grambling’s Martez Carter torched Southern last season, but Southern’s Herb Edwards has made a name for himself with five 100-yard games in his last six.
The Grambling receiver corps is bigger, the Southern receiver corps is more explosive, but neither has the ability to strike fear into the opposing secondary.
Dillon Beard is hands-down the best two-way tight end the SWAC has to offer, and the Jaguars can also bring in capable backups Dennis Craig and Jeremias Houston.
Both units have had their share of difficulty keeping the quarterback upright this season, but Southern’s unit has been playing stronger down the stretch.
Southern senior Aaron Tiller might be one of the most dangerous defensive linemen at the FCS level, but the Tigers have more playmakers across the board.
Grambling’s De’Arius Christmas is the leader of an active linebacker corps that has played a big part in the Tigers’ fearsome pass rush.
There may not be a finer defensive back at the FCS level than Southern’s Danny Johnson, and his teammates in the secondary are pretty strong too.
This could wind up being a huge advantage for Grambling. Southern’s kicking game has been a mess this season, and Grambling’s Marc Orozco has been as steady as they come.