Whatever happens when Southern steps up in class to take on Memphis in the Liberty Bowl on Saturday, the Jaguars hit a milestone just by kicking off.
Some offseason tabulating by radio play-by-play voice Chris Powers identified the Jaguars' second playing date as the 1,000th game in the school’s 101-year history.
Bring some champagne to the breakfast tailgate. Mimosas all around.
“It’s great for our program and the institution,” Southern coach Dawson Odums said. “You can see through all the battles, all the obstacles, we’re still here. It’s a testament to our institution, our fan base, our alumni. It’s a great tradition and program.”
It’s too bad when the game is over the Jaguars, as 39½-point underdogs, most likely will add this one to the loss column. For the record, the record is 605-364-30.
It’s not that the Jaguars can’t win, but FCS teams rarely upset their big brothers in FBS because of the huge disparity in resources. The game is being played for a paycheck, an unfortunate necessity for teams in a class with Southern, which will bank about $400,000 for making the trip.
Southern doesn’t have any such games locked in for future years, not that they aren’t looking. But athletic director Roman Banks said they are becoming harder to find and may get harder still if more Power 5 teams move toward a model Alabama coach Nick Saban suggested.
Saban said Alabama may start playing 10 of 12 games against Power Five conference teams. In the SEC that would mean eight conference games plus two non-conference. That would eat up another opportunity for the FCS schools to land a payday game.
“Power Five schools will schedule Group of Five teams like Memphis, and they will get the (payout around) $1 million,” Banks said. “There’s a method to the madness. If you aren’t maximizing game-day attendance, you have to fill the void in your budget by getting guarantee games.”
Southern has played 14 times against FBS schools and lost them all by an average score of 52-13. Southern icon Pete Richardson despised these games and played only three in 17 seasons. Odums has played 10 in his seven seasons, which account for one-third of his career losses.
But Odums understands the reality of his and other schools’ plight.
“If there was any other way, you’d choose another way,” Odums said. “We understand why we have to play these games. We’re not playing the bottom of these conferences. They won’t schedule you. You have to play the top half in the Power Five or the Group of Five.
“It’s not a level playing field when you play these games. You do not have what these other teams have. It’s challenging for you as a coach and the program. That’s where a majority of your losses come from.”
Players are a more sheltered from the realities and enter the games with a chip on their shoulders. Southern wide receiver Hunter Register, who spent three seasons at Power Five school Minnesota, said there isn’t that much difference in the personnel, just the numbers.
“There’s not a real big difference from the FBS level cornerbacks and safeties, the skill positions,” Register said. “You would think there is. You have practice, practice up there, meetings ... weights ... It’s all just football.”
Players have it drilled into them by their coaches to approach each game the same.
“We want to believe in ourselves,” defensive tackle Dakavion Champion said. “If we play to the best of our abilities, we have a chance to win that game. I go out every game with that mentality. This is just next game up.”
Coaches know the big difference is in the quality of the linemen on both sides of the ball and how many. Depth is probably the biggest factor that separates the haves from the have-nots.
“You can compete with them; it’s for how long you have to figure out,” Odums said. “When the ball kicks off and you are fresh, you have just as good a chance as anybody. Over time they wear you down with numbers; that’s where you see the difference. We went to Georgia (in 2017) and it was 17-7 at the half.”
Banks said he would like avoid these games — called Rent-a-Wins from the other sideline — and there are possibilities. He’s trying bump up average attendance at home games to cover budget holes. Another alternative is playing another “classic” game.
Last year, Southern got about $400,000 from the Bayou Classic and from $250,000-$300,000 from the State Fair Classic against Texas Southern in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. Banks said he’s be willing to play a similar game in Atlanta against an HBCU powerhouse like North Carolina A&T.
“Times are so tough with marketing and promoters; those games are hard to come by,” Banks said. “It doesn’t do any good to play in a classic game when they only pay for travel. You need something above travel.”
Banks said he was thrilled to get a home-and-home with Florida A&M this season and next. The Rattlers are close enough in a six-hour radius for bus travel both ways. But FAMU is the only Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference school that fits that profile and would only agree to a two-year deal when Banks sought a four-year commitment.
Even those games don’t help much if the fans don’t show up. Banks would like to add a fifth home game but said Southern needs to average at least 20,000 per game to make it work. Southern averaged 18,803 for four games last year, which included their bigger SWAC draws Alcorn State and Jackson State.
“People don’t realize how much it costs to hold a home game,” he said. “We need people committed to going into the stadium. Last year, we’re fighting for first place and had only 13,000 in the stands at the Bayou Classic. With those numbers how can you talk about increasing the number of home games, and not playing guarantees against the big boys to fill the gap.”
More factors handcuffing Southern are having to schedule games five or six years in advance and seeing state revenue to the school dwindling during the past 10 years. Southern had 13,000 students in those days, and attendance is now down to about half of that, Banks said. The school has experienced $20 million in funding cuts in that span.
Odums said his crew will soldier on this week with an eye at a SWAC title run down the road. He’s got one of his most talented, experienced teams, which is relatively healthy. As Georgia State showed at Tennessee last week, anything can happen on a given Saturday in college football, regardless of the imbalance.
“Players embrace it,” he said. “They go out and try, compete, that’s all we ask of them. They know it’s not TCU or Georgia, but Memphis is one of the better teams in 2019. They should be in the top 25.
“If those kinds of games weren’t on our schedule, we’d be talking about one of the more dominant programs in FCS. But you’ve got to play those games, and we know why.”