MikeCheck: SWAC title game Saturday pits conference’s hottest team (Southern) against league’s most dominant squad (Alcorn St.)
MEMPHIS – Turns out, Legion Field in Birmingham is available to host the Southwestern Athletic Conference’s football championship game on Saturday after all.
Alcorn State probably couldn’t care less.
The University of Alabama-Birmingham’s recent loss continues to be the Braves’ gain. As part of a contingency plan last month to avoid a potential conflict if UAB finished strongly enough to host the Conference-USA championship game, the SWAC relocated its own neutral-site title game from Legion Field to the campus of its league’s overall top finisher.
UAB, an FBS-level program, plays its home games at Legion Field. The Birmingham-based SWAC, one of only two leagues at the FCS level completely comprised of Black College football programs, has used Legion Field routinely for the conference’s football championship game.
Any potential scheduling conflict between UAB and the SWAC – the respective conference title games would have been played three hours apart at Legion Field – became a moot point when UAB lost last Saturday at Middle Tennessee State. Ironically, UAB and MTSU will play again this week in Murfreesboro in the C-USA championship game.
So, indirectly, Alcorn State leveraged the loophole.
Alcorn State beat Jackson State two weeks ago to win their fifth consecutive East division title. Photo by Alcorn State Sports Information.
Having clinched both the East division title and conference’s best overall record two weeks ago, Alcorn State (8-3) will remain right at home to face West division winner Southern University (7-3) in Lorman’s Jack Spinks Stadium for Saturday’s SWAC championship game.
The Braves got a taste two weeks ago of what Saturday’s atmosphere may resemble when they beat in-state rival Jackson State in front an overflow home crowd of 21,312 to clinch their fifth straight East title.
“It’s probably going to be 100 percent more (wild) than what it was even (that) weekend,” said Alcorn State coach Fred McNair, whose Braves have won nine of their past 10 home games. “But (the Alcorn-JSU game) kind of gets us into a mindset for what we think it’s going to be like at home and the people who are going to come to this (championship) game. These guys know the intensity and the magnitude of this ballgame. We’re excited about it and the kids are, too. But we still have to play a football game.”
It will be a matchup of familiar foes. Alcorn State and Southern finished 6-1 in SWAC play, but the Braves earned the right to host based on their 20-3 road win on Sept. 29 that spoiled the Jaguars’ homecoming weekend in Baton Rouge. But Southern has since won five straight games, buoyed by a midseason quarterback change and a strong defense that’s allowed an average of only 13 points a contest in that span.
In other words, Saturday’s title game features a matchup of the league’s hottest team in Southern and the conference’s most balanced squad in Alcorn State. The Braves rank first in the SWAC in both total offense and total defense. Meanwhile, the Jaguars are second in the league in both rushing offense and rushing defense.
We’re just excited about how far our team has come and how we’ve grown ... I don’t think anybody predicted us at the start of the season to be right here. But at the end of the day, this is somewhere we’ve found ourselves.Dawson Odums
When the teams met two months ago, Alcorn State dominated all three phases of the game to outgain Southern by a 381-139 margin in total yards. But since then, Southern has adjusted to a style that essentially mirrors Alcorn State.
Southern celebrates with the SWAC West division trophy after beating Grambling in last Saturday’s Bayou Classic. Photo by Southern University Athletics.
SWAC player of the year candidate Noah Johnson ranks 13th in the nation among FCS quarterbacks in completion percentage, and has accounted for 2,757 total yards and 22 touchdowns for Alcorn State. He’s a dual-threat catalyst of a ball-control offense that leads the SWAC in time of possession.
The Jaguars went on their recent run of success after coach Dawson Odums shifted to a similarly versatile quarterback in Ladarius Skelton, who has gained the bulk of his 1,268 total yards on the season over the past five games. Skelton has passed for nine touchdowns against just one interception, and he’s also rushed for five more scores and gained nearly 500 yards on the ground.
“I really think it’s just a team coming together and a coaching staff figuring out what we’re good at, then adapting our philosophy to meet the talent we have on the field,” Odums said of Southern’s late-season surge. “Defensively, we’ve been playing lights out and giving our offense some time to catch up. We made a quarterback switch that’s provided us some confidence and some excitement. People are going to try to make (Skelton) run the ball, but he’s a great passer and that’s given us an added dimension.”
We did some things to execute and they didn’t do some things so well. We took advantage of the opportunity we had. But [Jaguars coach, Dawson Odums] has gotten that team much better. It’s going to be a battle.Fred McNair
Alcorn State didn’t see much of Skelton in the regular-season meeting, which is why McNair believes his team has no reason to be overconfident going into the game. During their off week, the Braves watched Skelton pass for 217 yards and three touchdowns on just eight completions in Southern’s 38-28 win over Grambling in last Saturday’s Bayou Classic to clinch the West division.
“We have to take the positives and gain from it, watch the film, grade it and see what they’re doing differently than they did the first time we played them,” McNair said of Southern. “We did some things to execute and they didn’t do some things so well. We took advantage of the opportunity we had. But coach Odums has gotten that team much better. It’s going to be a battle.”
The Jaguars have rallied from a shaky 2-3 start to a perfect 5-0 finish to get here.
“We’re just excited about how far our team has come and how we’ve grown,” Odums said. “I don’t think anybody predicted us at the start of the season to be right here. But at the end of the day, this is somewhere we’ve found ourselves.”
Saturday's winner advances to Atlanta to face Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference winner and defending HBCU national champion North Carolina A&T in the Dec. 15 Celebration Bowl.
“Our coaches talked to them about doing the right things, not posting things on social media, making sure they’re not overconfident,” McNair said of his players. “That’s one thing you can easily get with a team you beat before – you can take it for granted. So now, you just get guys focused and get them back on ground level. The biggest thing is the growth of these young men. They’ve done a great job of being humble and mature. They’ve handled these situations.”
Due to equal parts fate, fortitude and a late-season tweak in the conference’s championship plans, Alcorn State can dictate terms from its own turf Saturday.
MikeCheck HBCU Power Poll 12.0
1. Alcorn State (8-3):
The Braves have won nine of their last 10 at home, and hope to extend that trend of dominance in Lorman when they host Southern for the SWAC championship. Alcorn coach Fred McNair knows plenty has changed about Southern since the Braves smothered the Jaguars 20-3 in Baton Rouge in September. Alcorn State should be well-rested after the SWAC's top offense and defense had two of the last three weeks off.
Last week’s ranking: 1
Up next: Saturday vs Southern (7-3)
2. North Carolina A&T (9-2):
All that’s left now for the Aggies is a date with the SWAC champion in the Dec. 15 Celebration Bowl. Meanwhile, the hardware keeps rolling in. N.C. A&T placed seven players on the MEAC’s All-Conference first team, including 1,000-yard rusher Marquell Cartwright. Also, Sam Washington was named MEAC coach of the year in his first season after being promoted to guide the defending HBCU national champions.
Last week’s ranking: 2
Up next: Dec. 15 Air Force Reserves Celebration Bowl vs Alcorn State/Southern U
3. Southern (7-3):
The Jaguars got another balanced performance and jumped out to a 31-13 lead before holding on late to beat Grambling 38-28 in the 45th Bayou Classic. Ladarius Skelton passed for 217 yards and three TDs while tailback Devin Benn ran for 111 yards and another score as Southern ended a three-year drought in the annual rivalry that drew 67,871 fans to the Superdome in New Orleans.
Last week’s ranking: 4
Up next: Saturday at Alcorn State (8-3)
4. Bethune-Cookman (7-5):
Finishing second in the MEAC behind defending HBCU national champ N.C. A&T for a second straight season underscores the Wildcats’ stability. Now it's time to take the next step. They carried a three-game winning streak into the offseason and played 12 consecutive weeks without a bye. With several key playmakers returning, including QB Akevious Williams and a solid defensive secondary, B-CU is on the rise.
Last week’s ranking: 5
Up next: Season complete
5. Bowie State (10-3):
Senior QB Amir Hall closes as the most prolific performer out of Bowie since award-winning songstress Toni Braxton. Hall’s career wrapped up with the Bulldogs’ loss last Saturday at top-five national seed Valdosta State in the second round of the NCAA Division II playoffs. Hall exits as the CIAA’s career leader in passing yards and TDs while leading the program to its first ever playoff victory.
Last week’s ranking: 3
Up next: Season complete
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