So many times before, the mighty Grambling Tigers had strolled into Montgomery, Ala., and left with another nice-and-easy victory over Alabama State.

Not this time. Not even close.

Maybe they’d grown complacent. Or maybe, this time, the Tigers had to confirm what many others have started to realize: This season, the Hornets are a bona fide force in the Southwestern Athletic Conference.

Just ask Doug Williams, whose team managed only 177 yards of offense in a 31-17 loss last week.

“I think we have to take our hat off to the coaching staff and coach (Reggie) Barlow,” he said. “When you make mistakes against a good football team, you’re going to get beat.”

Yes, it’s still very early. Yes, injuries, turnovers and unforeseen turmoil can change the landscape. But with a stout, athletic defense and talented skill players on offense, Alabama State - the reigning Eastern Division champion - suddenly looks like a favorite to repeat.

In the season opener, they made quick work of Mississippi Valley State, 41-9. It was a nice win, but it came at the expense of a team that finished 0-10 last season.

Two weeks ago, Alabama State traveled to Ypsilanti, Mich., for a game against FBS opponent Eastern Michigan. Although the Hornets gave up 336 rushing yards, they were in the game from start to finish, and they lost by only seven points, 14-7. That raised a few eyebrows.

Then came last week’s big win over Grambling. In that game, the Hornets scored three unanswered touchdowns in the fourth quarter, turning a 10-10 tie into a 31-10 lead. They also held Williams’ son, quarterback D.J. Williams, to 9-of-22 passing. And D.J. Williams’ backup, Frank Rivers, threw two interceptions.

Alabama State’s win was even more impressive because the team began Saturday’s game with Devin Dominguez at quarterback. A full-time baseball player who wasn’t with the football team during spring practice, Dominguez was the starting quarterback for much of last season but lost his job to Greg Jenkins, a transfer from Troy.

Dominguez started because of concerns over Jenkins, who had an ankle injury in the Eastern Michigan game.

Dominguez threw for 196 yards and a touchdown, then gave way to Jenkins, who also threw a touchdown pass and finished off the game.

“Alabama State is a very, very good football team: defensively and offensively. They have two different quarterbacks who do different things, and do them well. Defensively, they’ve got a young man over there (linebacker Leland Baker) who’s probably one of the better players you’re going to see in this conference.”

At 4 p.m. Saturday, the Hornets (3-0, 2-0) could cement their status as the team to beat in their division. They’ll visit undefeated Jackson State (3-0, 1-0) - a team that can’t play in the SWAC Championship game but was picked to finish first in the Eastern Division this summer.

“It’s really the same deal (as Grambling): a team that has a lot of great tradition and history and won a lot of championships,” Barlow said. “Their coach (Rick Comegy) is an outstanding coach and will have his guys ready to play. I’ve always really admired Jackson State’s teams from when I played in the conference.? They’re always tough, played hard and had a lot of confidence. They just have good players.”

The teams played last year in Montgomery, Ala., in a game that decided the East champion.

That night at the Cramton Bowl, Jackson State committed 17 penalties and four turnovers, and Alabama State held on for a 32-30 win. Moments after his team lost, sixth-year coach Rick Comegy was obviously steamed, firing off four dirty words in less than five seconds, and the conference suspended Comegy for the Tigers’ next game at Arkansas-Pine Bluff.

JSU won that game, but the damage was done. The Hornets clinched the East and advanced to the title game, where they lost to Texas Southern, 11-6.

With a win Saturday, Alabama State could assume control of the East again.