In recent years, Southern has owned its football rivalry against Jackson State, one of the most intense in HBCU football.
The Jaguars are riding a six-game winning streak and have won eight of the past 10 against the Tigers, which ties for the longest in the history of the series dating to 1929.
When the teams renew acquaintances at 4 p.m. Saturday at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jackson, Mississippi, interesting variables will be at play which could further intensify an already intense series.
Jackson State hasn’t had a winning record since 2013 when it fell to Southern in the SWAC Championship game. But the Tigers appear resurgent at 3-1 in the pandemic-fractured spring season under former NFL superstar Deion Sanders, who took the head coaching reins last summer.
The rivalry will spill out into living rooms via ESPN, televising a Southern game for the first time with access to about 86 million viewers. Both teams are scrambling with postponements mounting in SWAC play, neither knowing which game will be their last of the spring.
And, while it won’t count in the SWAC standings, both fan bases have had to wait nearly half a year for renewal.
“It’s a rivalry game,” Southern coach Dawson Odums said. “You don’t have to get up for this one.”
Sanders, who was a part of one of college football’s best rivalries between his Florida State Seminoles and Miami Hurricanes, said he’s eager to get a sense of this one.
“I can’t wait to see it myself,” he said. “Face it, feel it, touch it. I love it. I can’t wait to be involved in it.”
Both teams have had plenty of time to prepare and get healthy with open dates last week. The Jaguars rebounded from a loss to beat Texas Southern 51-23 two weeks ago, re-establishing their run-first offense to pull away in the second half. The Jaguars rushed for 256 yards, 195 after halftime.
Leading that effort was quarterback Ladarius Skelton, who used his option-running ability to gain 75 yards on 12 carries.
“A good running game is the defense’s best friend,” Odums said. “When you can run the ball and force your will on the opponent, it takes a lot out of a football team. Our offensive line is one of the strengths of our team. We hang our hat on those guys. Running the ball gives you some advantages, especially when you have the kind of talent we have at quarterback. It gives you a plus-one in the running game.”
The Tigers are coming off the first loss of the Sanders era, 35-28 to Alabama State, and are looking to regain their momentum for a run to the East Division title. The Tigers are the only team to have played four consecutive weeks.
“We’re happy; we needed a breather," Sanders said of the open date. "We had some guys have surgery who are no longer playing this spring. Some guys were banged up and we needed a break. Health is everything. To get fresh legs under us. We’re feeling really good where we are. Our quarterback Jalon (Jones) got a chance to heal up.”
Sanders said he’s wary of Skelton and defensive end Jordan Lewis, especially after his team surrendered five sacks to Alabama State
“He’s a qualified runner; the guy makes it happen,” Sanders said of Skelton. “Lewis can get after it, arm over, spin moves, quick with his feet, applies pressure at all times. I love what he does, his energy. I love the way he plays the game. One thing I’ve learned about the SWAC is there are some guys here that can play in the NFL. They just need to be seen and given the opportunity.”
Southern is just as wary of Jones, who has a pair of big wide receivers. Daylen Baldwin and Corey Reed are both 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds. Baldwin has caught 18 passes for 314 yards, a 17.4 yards-per-catch average, and five touchdowns. Reed has 17 receptions for 235 yards and two scores. The leading receiver is former Karr standout Warren Newman (23-186-2).
“You can see they are better from an organizational standpoint, scheme standpoint, they make great adjustments,” Odums said. “We want to play our type of game. When we do that, we can live with the results. We still haven’t played as good as we think we can. We have to keep improving."