Leave it to Doug Williams — the Grambling football coach, Southwestern Athletic Conference legend and all-around American original — to explain how his team not only re-entered the running for a berth in the SWAC Championship Game on Dec. 10, but mucked up the Western Division race for everyone else.
“Four weeks ago, we were left for dead,” Williams said, “and somehow, we found a respirator.”
Quite true. After losing three of their first four SWAC games, the Tigers have ripped off four consecutive victories to claim a share of first place in what has become a very weak Western Division.
With three weeks remaining, the East is an easy call. The West is still a mess.
Here’s a look at the landscape in each division:
The Eastern Division race is relatively simple, thanks to the time-tested process of elimination.
Mississippi Valley State, bless its scrappy little heart, is out of the race.
So, too, is Alcorn State, which stumbled in its first season under Melvin Spears. Star quarterback Brandon Bridge was benched and later dismissed. And as Spears dutifully noted Monday, the defense is playing 10 first-time starters.
Then there’s Jackson State. Last week, the Tigers not only rose to the top of the Eastern Division, but also to No. 1 in the Sheridan poll of black colleges. Two problems: 1) they, along with Southern, are banned from this year’s SWAC Championship Game, thanks to a low APR score, and 2) they lost to Grambling last week anyway.
That leaves Alabama State and Alabama A&M.
Alabama A&M owns the head-to-head tiebreaker, thanks to its 20-19 win in the Magic City Classic last month.
Basically, either team could clinch the Eastern Division title this week.
If ASU defeats Southern and A&M loses to Jackson State, then ASU wins the East.
On the other hand, if A&M defeats Jackson State and ASU loses to Southern, then A&M wins the East.
If Alabama A&M and Alabama State both win or both lose this weekend, then Alabama A&M will need a win at Prairie View on Nov. 12 to win the division. Otherwise, Alabama State wins the division.
Now, for the West.
Oh, that sloppy, crazy West.
At the moment, Prairie View and Grambling are tied for first place, but Prairie View holds the head-to-head tiebreaker. So the Panthers control their own fate in a division that’s filled with suspect teams.
“I may laugh a little bit, and I hope people don’t take this the wrong way. But right now, we’re sort of the smartest kid in special ed,” Panthers coach Heishma Northern said. “We’ll take that.”
Prairie View can indeed clinch the division title this week, but three things have to happen:
- The Panthers must defeat Alcorn in Lorman, Miss.
- Grambling must lose at home to Texas Southern.
- And Mississippi Valley must defeat Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
In other words, it probably won’t happen this week for Prairie View.
“Like I tell our guys: You control your own destiny, so make sure you take advantage of what you can control. Don’t worry about anything else,” Northern said. “And I tell them: I’m not interested in tiebreaking factors or head-to-head leads. All I’m interested in is winning. Or, even more important to me, hating to lose. ... We’re just worried about winning one game in a row.”
That’s a good thing — because, in reality, this race is far from over.
If Prairie View loses either of its final two games, then Grambling will take control. Grambling hosts Texas Southern this week, then faces Southern in the Bayou Classic on Nov. 26.
And although Southern is not eligible to play in the SWAC title game, it could still finish first in the West — all the scenarios are long shots, however, because Southern is 0-3 against division rivals Texas Southern, UAPB and Prairie View.
Elsewhere, Arkansas-Pine Bluff has to wonder where it might be if its Oct. 15 postgame fight with Southern never happened. The SWAC suspended 25 UAPB players over a three-week period, and so far, over the first two weeks, the Golden Lions have lost both games.
Still, they have a decent shot at winning the West.
Among the scenarios:
- If a three-way tie exists between Prairie View, Grambling, and UAPB, the Golden Lions would hold the tiebreaker, because they’d have a 3-1 division record and a head-to-head victory over Prairie View.
- If a three-way tie exists between UAPB, Grambling, and Southern, the Golden Lions would hold the tiebreaker, because, again, they’d have a 3-1 division record (Grambling would be 2-2 in the division, and Southern would be 1-3).
- If a three-way tie exists between Prairie View, UAPB, and Southern, the Golden Lions have the edge. They’ve already defeated Prairie View and Southern head-to-head.
“We’re right where we need to be,” UAPB coach Monte Coleman said. “We haven’t thrown in the towel. ... As far as the mindset of the team, we’ve worked extremely hard this week. The one thing I can say about this team (is), we don’t have any quitters.”
But for now, hold everything. After all, there’s a mathematical chance that all five Western Division teams could finish with identical 4-5 conference records.
Wouldn’t that be fun?