MEMPHIS – No, Dawson Odums isn’t the guy who played the movie character Big Worm in Ice Cube’s 1995 hit comedy ‘Friday.’
Odums simply bears a striking resemblance. But much like the movie’s nemesis that was actually played by actor Faizon Love, expect Odums to be a hostile mood when the Southern University head football coach rolls up to Liberty Bowl Stadium for Saturday’s game against Memphis.
It doesn’t matter that one of black college football’s most popular programs from the Southwestern Athletic Conference is taking a steep step up in competition to face the FBS-level Tigers. So what if Southern is an overwhelming underdog many expect to be sacrificial lambs, essentially a glorified sparring partner guaranteed a six-figure payday just to show up.
For Odums, there’s principalities in this.
The expectation is to drastically improve on last week’s self-inflicted meltdown, when five turnovers and costly penalties plagued Southern in a 34-28 season-opening loss to McNeese State.
Dawson Odums speaks with Georgia Bulldogs head coach Mark Richt during a medical timeout in the third quarter of the game on September 26, 2015. Photo by Todd Kirkland via Getty Images.
“One, value the football. Two, cut down on our penalties and then execute at a higher rate,” Odums said of the Jaguars’ mission in Memphis. “If we can do those things, we’ll be able to move the football and do some things in this game against a very talented team. Some predictions have (Memphis) going 12-0. Some predict them to be in a (New Year’s Day) bowl game. So we’ll have our hands full. But, I think we’ll play much better. I think we’ve got a good idea of who we are and what we’re trying to do.”
So exactly, who are the Southern University Jaguars?
They are a prideful, plucky program in powder blue, gold and white uniforms. Plus, they’ve got a hip-shaking, funky marching band called the Human Jukebox. The Southern Heritage Classic between Jackson State and Tennessee State arrives in town the following week as one of the top games on the HBCU football schedule. But Southern will bring a touch of soul to the Liberty Bowl a week in advance.
Much like the band’s dance moves, the Jaguars football team also spreads the ball all over the field with a lethal dual-threat quarterback in LaDarius Skelton, who is among 17 returning starters. In fact, they brought back 34 players who are fourth- or fifth-year contributors from a team that reached last season’s SWAC championship game.
They’re a tradition-rich program in athletic prowess, with an alumni base that includes Pro Football Hall of Famers in Mel Blount and Aeneas Williams, NBA standouts in Bob Love and Avery Johnson and major league baseball stars in Lou Brock and Rickie Weeks.
So we’ll have our hands full. But, I think we’ll play much better [than Memphis]. I think we’ve got a good idea of who we are and what we’re trying to do.Dawson Odums
And in the six years since Odums took over as coach and guided Southern out of crippling NCAA sanctions and back to SWAC prominence, the Jaguars haven’t backed down from big-time challenges. On Saturday, Southern will be outnumbered by scholarship players (85 on FBS level for Memphis, compared to limit of 63 for FCS schools) and perhaps overmatched by NFL prospects on the Tigers’ roster. But the Jaguars will hardly be overwhelmed by either the moment or the Liberty Bowl atmosphere.
That’s because Southern annually plays on national television in front of crowds of 70,000 against rival Grambling in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. And Memphis will be the eighth FBS team Southern has traveled to face in the past five years, including trips to face ranked TCU and Georgia squads.
Memphis can’t afford to look past anyone. The Tigers aren’t too far removed from that major scare they got from the last FCS team they played at home in a sluggish 44-31 win over Southern Illinois in 2017. It’s why Tigers coach Mike Norvell is adamant this week about his team moving on from an emotional season-opening win over Ole Miss and avoiding a letdown this week.
Southern University Jaguars head coach Dawson Odums will face an uphill battle this Saturday against the FBS-Level Memphis Tigers. Photo by Tom Pennington via Getty Images.
“This is a critical week for our program in how we prepare and the focus we have in our improvement,” Norvell said. “We’ve got a team coming in that has talent. This Southern team is well-coached (and) they have great playmakers across the board.”
The most dangerous among them is Skelton, who took over as the starter midway through last season and guided Southern to a 5-1 record. During those six games, Skelton accounted for 1,515 yards and 18 touchdowns. In Memphis, he returns to a region where he was one of the most prolific prep players in Arkansas high school history. A Pine Bluff native, Skelton amassed 8,202 yards and 104 touchdowns over three seasons as a starter, finishing as the Class 6A player of the year in 2016.
But three fumbles in last week’s loss at McNeese led to Skelton’s benching and Odums admonishing his talented playmaker about the virtues of protecting the football.
“We didn’t play smart football and gave a team a victory,” Odums said of surrendering 24 points off turnovers. “So we’ve got to go back. We’ve got a tough team. We go to Memphis, which I think is one of the better teams in the country. We’ve got to be more locked in. We don’t have no quarterback controversy. But it’s like I told (Skelton), nobody is above being held accountable for expectations we set. You’ve got guys behind you (at quarterback) pushing you. So you have to be ready. He understands those expectations, and I expect him to play better this week.”
Actually, expect at least two things from Odums’ Jaguars: They’ll definitely put up a fight. And they’ll certainly put on a show. Especially with the Human Jukebox making the trip.
Southern University Jaguars Human Jukebox Marching Band is set to perform during halftime this Saturday at Liberty Bowl Stadium. Photo by Nick Tre. Smith via Getty Images.
The halftime show alone will be worth both the cost of admission and the price to pay for having to endure another humid, 11 a.m. kickoff in Memphis.
Speaking of HBCU band performances …
Defending SWAC champion Alcorn State opened last weekend with a similar FCS-vs-FBS matchup against in-state partner Southern Miss and was within 13-7 in the third quarter before faltering in a 38-10 loss.
But the good thing about these so-called ‘guarantee games’ is that they usually guarantee two things for the HBCU programs involved. First, a solid six-figure check for the underdog team, ranging between $300,000 and $600,000 to help support the athletic department.
And secondly, at least a split in the competition, with HBCU bands undefeated in the halftime show portion of these matchups. Exhibit 4,596: Alcorn’s Sounds of Dyn-o-mite rocking to Old Town Road.
TSU kicker snags Player of the Week honor
Tennessee State got a major boost – and boot – from sophomore kicker Antonio Zita, who was named the Ohio Valley Conference’s Co-Specialist of the Week.
Tennessee State sophomore kicker Antonio Zita scored 14 points off four made field goals, including a career-long 44-yarder against Mississippi Valley State. Photo by Sam Jordan/TSU Athletics.
Zita made four field goals, including a career-long 44-yarder, in TSU’s 26-20 win over Mississippi Valley State in last Saturday’s John Merritt Classic at Nissan Stadium. After missing his first attempt, Zita made his final four kicks and scored the Tigers’ last nine points to help overcome a 13-10 deficit. His four makes were from distances of 31, 28, 44 and 26 yards out.
His 14 points, including two extra points on touchdown drives, were the third-most by a kicker in a TSU game. The Tigers also netted 447 yards of total offense, including 235 all-purpose yards from senior All-American Chris Rowland in the season-opening win. TSU must get an even more complete performance on Saturday, when they travel to face Middle Tennessee State to mark the fourth straight season the Tigers will have faced an FBS opponent.