The Southern football team’s goal for this season is twofold but simple: Get back to the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship game ... and win it.
The Jaguars are seeking their third consecutive trip to the title game, having won their first SWAC title in 10 years in 2013 before losing to Alcorn State 38-24 in last year’s title game.
“In 2013, we all felt how it was to win it, and then last year, we all felt how it was to lose it,” senior linebacker Daniel Brown said. “We all know that winning is better than losing any day, so it’s motivation enough that we didn’t capture the prize like we were supposed to.”
The loss in the title game rarely leaves the Jaguars’ minds.
“That’s all we remember (from last season),” quarterback Deonte Shorts said.
But as an added reminder, the players’ workout shirts are inscribed with the word “remember” and the score of the title game.
“We talk about it just about every day,” safety Dionte McDuffy said. “That left a bad taste in our mouths. We don’t ever want that feeling again.”
Alcorn beat Southern 56-16 in the regular season last year and has won the past four meetings.
“I haven’t beaten Alcorn since I got here,” junior safety Blake Monroe said.
But it’s the December loss that stands out even more than the lopsided one in October.
“I look at it as motivation because you didn’t finish,” coach Dawson Odums said. “It’s motivation to say, ‘If I need one more rep, I can go one more rep.’ What’s it going to take for you to change the outcome of this kind of situation in any game? That’s what it’s doing to their mindset.”
Odums quickly added, though, that looking ahead to the championship game will be a waste of time if the team isn’t focused on the day-to-day and week-to-week effort that will decide whether Southern has a chance to get back to it.
“We’re picked third in our conference, so we can’t be that good,” Odums said. “We have a lot of work to do.”
It appears the Jaguars are capable of winning the West again and getting a shot at redemption. The SWAC coaches and sports information directors picked them second in the West — but just two points behind Grambling. Alcorn was picked to repeat as East champion.
Brown is one of three key experienced players who are back after being academically ineligible last season; the others are standout offensive lineman Anthony Mosley and wide receiver Nico Talbert. Southern returns most of its starters from last year’s team and brought in a recruiting class Odums is high on.
At a meeting early in preseason camp, Odums had the fifth-year seniors address the team. The seniors who transferred in only know the recent success, but the older ones experienced losing seasons, including a 4-7 record in 2012 when Odums was promoted from defensive coordinator after Stump Mitchell was reassigned after a 0-2 start.
“The fifth-year guys spoke because they could pass on what the program used to be,” Odums said. “I’m big on that kind of stuff in camp. A lot of our young guys don’t know what it used to be like, so it’s motivation not to go back.
“I coach hard because I don’t want to go back to losing, and that’s what I tell them: ‘Play hard so you don’t have to go back to losing.’ ”
With last year’s SWAC Freshman of the Year Austin Howard at quarterback, incumbent 1,000-yard rusher Lenard Tillery and a deep set of receivers, the Jaguars should be difficult to defend.
Mosley will lead an offensive line that lost two starters from last season but has the experience and depth to continue a high standard set during the past couple of seasons.
Brown’s return bolsters a defense that lost five starters and has some uncertainty in the secondary.
“Last year’s team had a different identity, and this year’s team is going to have a different identity,” Odums said. “But at the end of the day, we’ve got to find the ingredients that will make us a good football team, and it starts with those seniors.”
Southern wasn’t able to hold spring practice because of NCAA sanctions, but the seniors organized frequent workouts early in the summer, reminding everyone of how last season ended.
“We got there but, we didn’t accomplish the goal that was ahead,” Odums said. “That’s more motivation than anything else. You worked that hard to get to the finish line, and you come up short.
“If that doesn’t motivate you going into the next offseason, nothing else will, and that’s what I call building a program. I think we’ve been able to do that over the course of the time that I’ve been here.”