Defending SWAC champ Alcorn State enters title game as underdog
Published 8:47 am Thursday, December 1, 2016
It was Alcorn State, not Grambling, that wrapped up its division early in the Southwestern Athletic Conference. Alcorn, and not Grambling, is the two-time defending league champion.
And yet Alcorn, and not Grambling, will be the underdog when the teams meet in the SWAC championship game Saturday afternoon in Houston.
Alcorn (5-5) took advantage of a weak East Division to punch its ticket to the title game with room to spare, while Grambling (9-1) survived a three-way battle with Southern University and Prairie View to clinch the West on the final day of the regular season.
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Grambling also handled Alcorn with ease when the teams played in late September, winning 43-18, and has won six of the last nine meetings between the teams. It all explains why the Tigers are the favorite this time around, and that’s just fine with Alcorn head coach Fred McNair.
“It’s best for us. I embrace anything that brings it on. It’s no big deal to me. The game has got to be played and being the underdog is not a bad thing,” McNair said during a news conference earlier this week.
The earlier loss to Grambling was part of a 1-3 start that Alcorn has bounced back nicely from. It won four of the last six games to earn its third consecutive division title — a feat only one other team has accomplished since the conference split into divisions in 1999. Grambling won three West division titles and the league championship game each year from 2000-02.
Grambling, meanwhile, won its ninth division title overall and is going for its 25th SWAC championship on Saturday afternoon. The Tigers have been the class of the league for most of the season, with all eight of their SWAC victories coming by at least 19 points.
Grambling has even held its own against tougher competition. Its only loss came in the season opener at Football Bowl Subdivision opponent Arizona, when it lost 31-21 after leading 21-3 at halftime.
Grambling is averaging 44 points per game, a total that ranks fourth nationally in the Football Championship Subdivision. Quarterback Devante Kincade has thrown only three interceptions in 287 pass attempts this season. He’s completing 65.2 percent of his passes for 2,633 yards and 28 touchdowns.
“They do have a high-powered offense. The biggest thing is just making the play when you have a play to make. Containing Kincade and making him throw out of the pocket, and tackling. We have to make plays,” McNair said.
Alcorn ranks 76th nationally in scoring defense and is giving up 29.2 points per game. It has gotten better as the season has gone along, though. It was torched for 534 and 494 yards, respectively, in losses to Grambling and Southern. In the last two games, against Mississippi Valley State and Jackson State, it gave up a total of 470 yards.
McNair said the improvement was a case of a young defense gaining experience and confidence.
“I think (defensive coordinator Cedric Thomas) and his staff on that defensive side of the ball have been doing a tremendous job of getting those guys to gel together and play together as a team. They have turned the corner. The young guys have grown up a little bit now to where they understand the schematic stuff of what Coach Thomas is trying to teach them.”
To win another championship, the Braves will probably need to be a lot better this time in all phases of the game than they were in their first tussle with the Tigers. After trailing 16-8 at halftime in that game, in the second half they did not score an offensive touchdown, committed two turnovers and were outscored 27-10. Kincade threw five touchdown passes in the game and was 30-of-42 for 400 yards, with no interceptions.
McNair said a lot of that implosion was the Braves’ own doing. Clean it up, he said, and the Braves will be in a better position to do what no SWAC team has been able to this season.
“The biggest thing is, we just made too many mistakes. We just had turnovers and missed tackles, and things like that. That’s what we’ve gotten into the last week, is ball security and those things,” McNair said. “We left a lot out there. We looked at film from the last time we played them in September and we saw we had plays to be made and we didn’t make them. Going into this game, I think we’ve covered all the basic stuff we need to put these guys in a position to make plays for us.”