Two teams on parallel paths but coming off different experiences intersect Saturday in a game that has implications on both sides of SWAC play when Southern hosts Alabama A&M in its homecoming game at Mumford Stadium.
The Jaguars are coming off another disappointing finish against Alcorn State, while the Bulldogs are coming in off the high of defeating their in-state rival in a thrilling finish. Both teams control their destinies with all major goals still in front of them.
“I like our chances on the turf,” Southern coach Dawson Odums said. “We’re pretty good at home. Our guys are motivated. They’ll be eager to get back out there and taste winning.”
The atmosphere should be the most favorable for Southern this season, with an expected crowd in excess of 20,000. It’s comforting for the Jaguars to be back home where they have won 14 of their past 15 games and with the stakes high in the final third of the season.
The Jaguars (4-4, 3-1 in SWAC play) have been disappointing in terms of consistency but are still in control of repeating as West Division champions with three conference games remaining. Alabama A&M (5-3, 2-1) is trying to stay relevant and unseat Alcorn State as the East champion and needs a win to make that happen. The Bulldogs play at Alcorn State in two weeks in one of their four remaining league games.
“Every game gets bigger and bigger,” second-year Alabama A&M coach Connell Maynor said. “We need to win out, but we need to go 1-0 this week. It’s the biggest game of the season. There are no easy games on our schedule.”
The visitors held off Alabama State to win the Magic City Classic 43-41, stopping a 2-point conversion try in the third overtime. The challenge for Southern is to slow down the conference’s top passer, Aqeel Glass, and the second leading rusher, Jordan Bentley.
Glass leads the conference with 2,298 yards and 21 touchdowns passing. Bentley has scored a league-best 14 touchdowns, 12 on the ground, and has rushed for 859 yards. He’s averaging 4.9 yards per carry.
“They will be a test,” Odums said. “Anybody getting ready for Alabama A&M will look at those two guys, as the reason they are successful. Coach Maynor is a winner. He’s got them going in the right direction. A former quarterback himself, you see what kind of leader he wanted at that position. Glass is that guy.”
Glass will be taking aim at a Southern secondary that has sunk to ninth in the 10-team league in yards allowed per game (280.8). Odums said he’s not looking for perfection from his defense, just more playmaking.
“Most teams in the SWAC can score,” he said. “You’re not going to hold a lot of teams down unless they are turning the ball over or making mistakes. We’re going to hang our hat on stopping the run and our guys are going to get better at pass defense.”
Odums said his struggling offense will have a chance to make plays against a Bulldogs defense allowing 422.6 yards per game, ahead of only Texas Southern in SWAC total defense rankings. That will begin with consistent quarterback play from which quarterback holds the reins.
Odums indicated this week backup Bubba McDaniel could make his first career start in place of Ladarius Skelton. Odums said it would be a game-time decision.
“It’s the little things that win games,” McDaniel said. “Communication, getting on the ball quicker, tempo and not shooting ourselves in the foot. We didn’t execute as a whole last week. I missed some things. I’ve got to do better with going through my progressions, getting depth in the pocket, staying in the pocket and trusting it.”
The Jaguars also have some concerning health issues. Running backs Chris Chaney and Craig Nelson missed the last game as did slot receiver Cameron Mackey. Defensive end Jordan Lewis, who provides and irreplaceable pass rush, played sparingly because of microsurgery on a pinkie finger. Odums said Lewis should be closer to 100 percent, but the other three remain questionable.
Odums said he’s confident the sour taste of losing to Alcorn State last week for the ninth time in 10 games won’t be an issue Saturday.
“The next game always gives you a chance to bounce back,” Odums said. “That’s when you find out what kind of team and coaching staff you have. These guys have to get ready to go.”