Playoffs are often called a second season in football circles.
For Southern University, the trip to Lorman, Mississippi, for the SWAC Championship game against Alcorn State could qualify as a third.
The Jaguars are riding a five-game winning streak, and they like a completely different team than the one that went 2-3 in the first half, which ended with a 20-3 domination by the same Braves squad Sept. 29.
But there’s a championship on the line this time when the teams kick off at 3:33 p.m. Saturday at Spinks-Casem Stadium. The game will be broadcast on ESPNU.
Southern (7-3) has not been in a position to win a conference title since 2013. The Jaguars' long, slow climb back from APR-induced restrictions consumed the first half of the season.
Few teams in college football are as hot as the Jaguars now.
“They frustrated us the last time they played us here,” Southern coach Dawson Odums said. “But we get an opportunity to play them with a different mindset. It takes a little while to identify what it takes as a coach and a team to get better. Our team is mentally in a place we weren’t in the first five games.”
This game is not a destination for Southern, but part of a path back to its traditional place among the HBCU elite. Nine national titles and 19 conference crowns says so.
“We’re excited to be in this situation,” sophomore wide receiver Kendall Catalon said. “We’re not going to take anything for granted, just keep doing what we’ve been doing. It feels good. I wouldn’t say that it’s revenge. We’re just playing better.
“We’re getting it back where it needs to be. Southern is supposed to be on top.”
There is still quite a mountain to climb. Alcorn (8-3) isn’t tailing off after dominating the league statistically as the top offensive and defensive team in yards and points. Unlike Southern, the Braves look like the same team that thumped the Jaguars and Grambling, although they scored only one offensive touchdown in the first meeting at A.W. Mumford Stadium.
“We did some things as a quarterback (Noah Johnson) we don’t normally do in the first game,” Alcorn coach Fred McNair said. “We’ve settled down the past few weeks. Nothing they did will make us change. We’ve got to make sure we get the proper reads and make the right throws. He’s gotten better in the passing game.”
So has Southern — significantly. That’s because after the Alcorn loss, the Jaguars switched to transfer Ladarius Skelton, who has been up to the task and more. Skelton has rushed for 465 yards and five TDs and passed for 801 yards and nine scores. His 296 total yards and three TD passes earned him MVP of the Bayou Classic.
Southern’s open week after Alcorn allowed the offensive staff extra time to get Skelton up to speed, and they wisely brought him along gradually after that.
Odums said Skelton will be fine in Saturday’s spotlight.
“He watches film; he’s eager to learn; he’s motivated and confident,” Odums said. “He’s ready to step up and make plays. He’s not afraid of the big stage. Early on he’ll have some jitters, but he’ll settle down.”
That should help settle down the Southern offense, which managed only 139 yards in the first meeting. Skelton will need help from running back Devon Benn, who rushed for 167 yards and a TD last week. He’s running behind an offensive line Odums said played its best game of the season against Grambling.
Defensively, Southern has been steady all season, even against Alcorn. The development of pass-rush specialist Jordan Lewis, who leads the SWAC with 11 sacks, has made the defense stronger against the pass. Alcorn had 234 yards rushing in the first meeting, but most of it came in the second half as the Jaguars wore down.
Alcorn boasts three of the top seven SWAC rushers in Johnson, De’Shawn Waller and P.J. Simmons, who have combined for 2,396 yards and 23 TDs.
The game is at Alcorn instead of Birmingham, Alabama, as originally planned because of a potential conflict with UAB. But Odums didn’t seemed concerned with the Braves' home-field advantage.
“It’s important to play well in the beginning, get off to a good start in a hostile environment,” he said. "I don’t know how much of crowd will be at Alcorn. I’ve got a feeling the Jaguar Nation will find their way into that ticket office. I know we’ll be well-represented.”
For Catalon, the more the merrier.
“You’ve got to love it,” he said. “A big, big crowd, a good fan base in Alcorn. It doesn’t matter how many people are there, how loud it is, we’re looking forward to it.”