BIRMINGHAM, Ala — Southern University coach Dawson Odums goes out of his way to treat his 2019 prospects like he would any other season, even with a league-high 17 starters returning.

But Odums might have arrived at the Southwest Athletic Conference media days this week with a tell toward what he’s really thinking. He was sporting a new, neatly-trimmed goatee for his sessions with media.

“(Alcorn State) Coach (Fred) McNair’s been wearing his and he’s had some success,” Odums cracked. “I’m trying to steal a little bit from him.”

Maybe it’s a mild head game Odums is playing with his chief rival for the SWAC title this season. Assuredly, he’s trying to steal his way back into the conference throne room, a place the Braves have resided three of the past five seasons.

This could be the season Odums, the dean of SWAC coaches in his seventh full season, breaks through. The Jaguars ended 2018 in a flourish and led Alcorn in the fourth quarter of the league championship game before falling. Alcorn edged the Jaguars in pre-season polling of coaches and sports information directors as the favorite but Southern has a roster stocked with experience and depth.

If it comes down to another head-to-head meeting things might fall Southern’s way. Odums has finally been able to maximize his resources with the APR sanctions a fleeting memory, but he’s sent his team a message that nothing has been accomplished yet.

“Year 1 and Year 7 are the same for me,” said Odums, who is 50-29 including his interim gig in 2012. “I focus on the things I can control and the things I can’t, I leave that for my greater God to take care of. I’ve been blessed to be here for seven years and to have an opportunity to be successful, and have this program going in the right direction. It has not been easy but it has been fun.

“We’re motivated, eager to get back to work. We’ve got to block out the noise. There’s a lot of chatter about our experience but at the end of the day it’s a new year, a new opportunity to embrace 2019. We know fall camp is going to be hard. We have to get ready to go to work and our guys are going to do that.”

The players don’t see any extra excitement from the man who guided them to their last league title in 2013, his first full season as head coach. They’ve been made aware the Jaguars don’t get to pick up where they left off. The seasons starts over from scratch, just like the six previous ones.

“He’s been the same guy since I got here day one,” offensive tackle Jodeci Harris said. “You know what you are going to get every day.”

Said linebacker Calvin Lunkins: “It’s the same motto: Get better every day. We don’t need extra juice. We know where we finished last year.”

Odums’ way appears to work. He is one of three coaches in the league of 10 teams with more than one year on the job. He received a raise and extension in the offseason, responded with a strong recruiting season and had what he said was the program’s best offseason participation. There was little attrition and thus not much room to add any latecomers.

“Longevity and consistency go hand-in-hand,” Odums said. “When you are consistent, you may go down and have some lulls, but you are eventually going to rise to the top. It’s going to take a lot to stay there. We’re excited where we are. We do things the right way, recruit the right guys and build a culture for success.”

His rival coaches look on with admiration.

“Dawson is awesome,” said Jackson State coach John Hendrick, a former LSU assistant. “We’ve known each other a long time. He’s a good coach, good man, disciplinarian. His sustained success at Southern is proof.”

Even McNair knows Odums, while annually preaching caution, sees an opportunity to come after Alcorn hard.

“He’s always going to come after us,” McNair said. “You have to bring the ‘A’ game every time you face his teams.”

Even with something as simple as facial hair.

“We mirror each other sometimes,” McNair laughed. “He had the sideburns going one time and I had mine. I don’t know what it is, something strange.”

Maybe a reminder of who the dean of SWAC coaches is.