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Southern University interim head coach Jason Rollins shakes hands with Grambling State University interim head coach Terrence Graves after the annual Bayou Classic press conference at Caesars Superdome in New Orleans, Monday, Nov. 22, 2021. The Battle of the Bands and Greek Show event is on Friday at 7pm and kickoff is Saturday at 4pm. (Photo by Sophia Germer, NOLA.com, The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

Both sides in the Bayou Classic are celebrating its return to New Orleans, but not without acknowledging that something is missing from this year’s 48th annual meeting between Southern and Grambling.

For the first time since 2012, the game will have no impact on the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship.

Southern President-Chancellor Ray Belton perhaps said it best: “It’s odd; the whole conference thinks it’s odd.”

Yet no one expects a drop in intensity when the teams kick off at 4 p.m. Saturday in the Caesars Superdome.

The Tigers and Jaguars enter the game with identical records of 4-6, 3-4 in SWAC play. Both, for the first time, will be led by interim coaches who likely will not return in 2022. Still, both coaches say motivation won’t be a problem.

“You can never say someone has nothing to play for,” said Southern coach Jason Rollins, who will lead a team for the first time in a Bayou Classic. “They always play for the university, for the name on the front as well as the name on their back. There’s always something to play for.

“We’re not playing for the SWAC title, but we’re playing for state bragging rights, Jag Nation, this in the Superdome, it’s the 48th Bayou Classic.”

Grambling will be led by Terrence Graves, who took over when coach Broderick Fobbs was fired last week. He’s been a part of 23 Bayou Classics as an assistant at Southern and Grambling.

“It’s the Bayou Classic; if you can’t get up for this you can’t get up for anything,” Graves said. “The guys understand what’s at stake. Bragging rights, it’s the state championship trophy. We put the early part of the season behind us and said we’ve got one game to finish. That’s where we are today.”

Both teams had their annual open week before the game. Grambling struggled on offense all season, using four different quarterbacks. Southern’s defensive struggles prevented it from gaining momentum. Both teams failed to win two conference games consecutively.

The Jaguars had the league’s top rushing offense but had trouble scoring in the second half. In four home losses, Southern scored 13 second-half points and was shut out in one of those.

“It’s about finishing; finishing a drive, a block or the game,” Rollins said. “Finishing down the stretch. If we look at a lot of things at the end, we were just that close, and that close is a matter of finishing.”

With 28 years of experience as an assistant, and a quick stint as interim head coach at Mississippi Valley, Graves is confident he has a handle on the situation for Grambling.

“The first day was a roller coaster of emotions,” said Graves, who played for Pete Richardson at Winston-Salem State. “I thanked the Lord and said, ‘I’m the coach at Grambling.’ We had a staff meeting and met with the guys.

“When I went to run those guys out of the locker room they were excited, jumping around, there was high energy on the field. I got a little too excited and ran around like I was playing football again and remembered I wasn’t playing anymore.”