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Jackson State’s early success is a wake-up call for SWAC and a ray of hope for Jackson, Mississippi

The Tigers improve to 4-1 overall after defeating defending SWAC champion Alabama A&M 61-15

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – At the end of a sweaty, musty maze of jubilant Jackson State football players gyrating to 2 Chainz’s “Feel A Way,” coach Deion Sanders sat in a small, cluttered room with his surgically-repaired right foot propped up on a red plastic chair, a satisfied look on his face.

Jackson State had just played its biggest game in at least a decade Saturday afternoon at Louis Crews Stadium and delivered a blowout win.

Jackson State 61, Alabama State 15.

This is the kind of win Jackson State’s alumni had been waiting for since Sanders arrived with much pomp and circumstance and hype after athletic director Ashley Robinson hired him in September 2020.

This is the kind of win over the defending Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) champions that makes Jackson State relevant again because it’s clear the Western Division championship and a trip to the SWAC championship game goes through the Tigers.

But this is also the kind of win that brings hope to Jackson, Mississippi, and its struggling capital city.

There have been 114 recorded homicides in Jackson as of Oct. 9, according to The Clarion-Ledger, which means the city is on pace to surpass last year’s record of 130 slayings.

Jackson is also one of the state’s poorest cities. In 2019, 23% of Jackson residents had an income below the poverty level, according to City-Data.com.

“We made a change. This is a change. This is a tremendous change,” Sanders said. “The last time we played them, it wasn’t like this.

“That’s why they scheduled us for homecoming. They thought it was going to be the same old thing, but it’s a new day. I was proud of the kids.”

“This win means we’re real. [The city] has a reason to believe and we wanted to transfer that reason on the field to off the field. They have a reason to believe they can make it, they can do it, they can have a change.”

Coach Deion Sanders

The city needs Jackson State football to thrive. Everything is better when the Tigers are winning — the team has now improved to 4-1 overall — because the university is the city’s epicenter.

Sanders arrives at the office about 5 a.m. most days. He uses a portion of his time to watch local news so he can understand what plagues the city and how he might help.

“There’s a lot going on in the city that we can improve as a whole. We can do better as a people, as a city, as a culture,” Sanders said. “We just need resources and opportunity, and I think there will be a tremendous change. Resources and opportunity. That’s all we have. That’s what we’re using.”

Alabama A&M was considered Jackson State’s biggest threat all season because of its high-powered offense and quarterback Aqeel Glass, who’s an NFL prospect.

But Jackson State never gave Alabama A&M an opportunity to compete.

A 67-yard fumble return for a touchdown by James Houston and a 58-yard punt return by Warren Newman that set up another touchdown gave Jackson State a 14-0 lead midway through the first quarter.

They led 33-7 at halftime, and 54-7 entering the fourth quarter.

Sanders made sure his team knew the game’s importance and the impact a win would have on the program.

He changed playcallers this week, giving the job to tight ends coach T.C. Taylor. He challenged the offensive line to be more physical in a closed-door meeting that included plenty of yelling but no profanity.

He had short, individual meetings in his office last week with several different position groups, letting them know how much a win would change Jackson State’s program.

After all, Alabama A&M beat Jackson State 52-43 and Glass passed for 440 yards and six touchdowns last spring. The Tigers sacked him eight times on Saturday.

“There were two whole different teams out on the field today,” Sanders said. “I know everybody thought it was high school because they wanted the clock to run in the second half so we could get this mess over with.

“They had their best week of practice since I’ve been here. We were locked in. I think we had three fights on Thursday, that let me know they were focused.”

The first step toward building an elite program is dominating the SWAC. Once upon a time, Jackson State did that.

From 1971 through 1999, Jackson State won at least eight games 21 times, including 11 nine-win seasons. In 1978 and 1996, the Tigers won 10 games, the most in school history.

Since then, they’ve won as many as eight games three times, and the last occurred in 2013. They haven’t won a SWAC title since 2007 and haven’t played for one since 2013.

“This win means we’re real. [The city] has a reason to believe and we wanted to transfer that reason on the field to off the field,” Sanders said. “They have a reason to believe they can make it, they can do it, they can have a change.”

Jean-Jacques Taylor is an award-winning journalist who is currently president of JJT Media Group and has covered sports in Dallas-Fort Worth for 31 years.