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Southern Quarterback BeSean McCray scrambles to extend the play during the NCAA football game between Southern and Jackson State at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jackson,Miss on October 29, 2022.

Saturday was the best open date in Southern football history. Next up, the 49th annual Bayou Classic with a lot more at stake than state bragging rights.

Losses by Prairie View and Texas Southern on Saturday put the Jaguars back in control of their destiny for the Southwestern Athletic Conference West Division title and it only adds another wrinkle to the Classic when they face rebuilding Grambling.

Southern coach Eric Dooley, who has played in the Classic and coached in it as an assistant, is getting ready for his first appearance as a head coach against another Bayou Classic rookie, Grambling head coach Hue Jackson.

“When you talk about the Bayou Classic, it doesn’t matter what the implications are behind it,” Dooley said at Monday’s Bayou Classic news conference at the Caesars Superdome. “It’s a big game for the state of Louisiana and both institutions. Give us the opportunity and we accept it. We’re ready for it.”

The game took on new meaning as Jaguar Nation spent Saturday hoping for a miracle and having it delivered. Dooley put his team through a practice, after which players and coaches headed for the nearest TV or internet connections.

Dooley didn’t have to wait long to find out his team knew.

“My phone was blowing up with texts and questions,” Dooley chuckled. “They didn’t know the whole scenario, but we’ve talked about it as a team and knew what had to take place. They know the opportunity before us.”

The Jaguars (6-4, 4-3 in SWAC) got a reprieve from two weeks before when they missed a chance to move back into the driver’s seat by losing to Florida A&M. Now they’re in a win-or-go-home situation trying to reach the SWAC championship game at Jackson State in what will be a rematch of a 35-0 loss Oct. 29.

Having been burned once before, the Jaguars won’t take Grambling for granted, not that any Southern team ever would in the Bayou Classic, in which emotions run and anybody can win. That’s something Jackson, who has the Tigers in rebuild mode, is telling his team, too.

“I know they’re playing for something, but we are, too,” Jackson said. “Bragging rights for 365 days. It’s just as important to us as them.”

There are many question marks for the Jaguars that will be revealed. Dooley doesn’t discuss injuries, but he suggested that quarterback BeSean McCray will return and start after leaving the Mississippi Valley game with an undisclosed injury he suffered on the first series. Bubba McDaniel entered the game and played well in leading the Jaguars to a 27-7 victory.

“He’s been good,” said Dooley, who put his team through a 6 a.m. practice Monday. “It was a great opportunity to have a bye week. He’s been throwing the football. We had a practice this morning at 6 am. To get out there in 38-degree temperature, I thought he looked good.”

Grambling (3-7, 2-5) is pinning its hopes on freshman quarterback Julian Calvez, who has passed for 533 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for 185 yards and three scores. Jackson made a commitment to Calvez at midseason and he’s started since. He’s up against a Southern defense that likes to pressure and has 36 sacks and 11 interceptions to show for it.

“We haven’t played a complete game yet, that’s what I’m still searching for,” Dooley said. “I’m talking about all three phases. I do commend our young men because of some of the things they had to do, adjustments they had to make. A sudden change with different leadership and formalities, they go through a lot. They accepted the challenge and we’re in this position today.”