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A 'Prime' Test: Deion Sanders, Jackson State Battle Alabama A&M in SWAC East Showdown

Coming off a much-needed bye week, the Tigers return to the gridiron for their first October test on the road against the reigning SWAC champs.

When Jackson State head coach Deion Sanders began his coaching tenure with an unprecedented 2021 spring season, he made constant reminders that his Tigers team would look different when the fall rolled around.

After JSU finished 4–3 in the spring—which included a forfeited victory from Alcorn State—Sanders even doubled down on the "Genesis” theme for his second season with ESPN’s Tiffany Greene and Jay Walker during the Southwestern Athletic Conference’s media day in July.

“You’re going to see the biggest change everywhere,” Sanders said. “There’s not one particular position. We’ve upgraded everything.”

With his complete recruiting class of players—ranked the highest among FCS programs and the Tigers' highest in program history—on board this fall, Sanders’s words have proven true through the first month of college football season. JSU sits in unfamiliar territory headed into its first test in October, a month where game-changing moments could determine the outcome of conference championship contenders in late November.

Deion Sanders during a JSU football game

How unfamiliar is this territory for JSU? The last time Jackson State posted a winning record ahead of its first October game was 2014, when the Tigers were 3–2 despite finishing the season 5–7. Even more, JSU’s best record ahead of its first October battle dates back a decade, when the Tigers started 4–1 and finished the season 9–2 and co-champions with Alabama A&M, who went on to play in the 2011 SWAC title game.

While the program has not finished over .500 since 2013, Sanders and the Tigers (3–1) have a chance to continue restoring their winning tradition on the gridiron when they face the reigning SWAC champs from the spring in Alabama A&M—an offensive juggernaut—on Saturday in Huntsville, Ala.

Sanders, who remains in a boot and will be moving around on a scooter on the sidelines for the next several weeks while recovering from his recent foot surgery, says he is ready for the challenge.

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“Playing in the SWAC is unbelievable,” Sanders told reporters during the league’s weekly coaches conference call. “It’s like a roller coaster of emotions and we can’t wait to finally play our part in this emotional roller coaster.”

Coming off a bye week after the Tigers fought off a fourth-quarter rally to defeat in-state opponent Delta State 24–17, the top spot in the SWAC East will be in the mix along with early division implications taking shape. JSU remains the only undefeated team in the SWAC East in conference play.

Alabama A&M (3–1) sit in a three-way tie with Florida A&M and Alabama State for second in the division. The Tigers face a Tigers team coming off a surprising 37–28 loss to Grambling State, a blueblood program among HBCUs looking to restore prominence that was built under legendary coach Eddie Robinson.

Alabama A&M—a team that has been ranked in FCS and many Black college football polls—has turned the ball over more than a dozen times through the first four weeks of the season. Bulldogs coach Connell Maynor said that has to change while facing a well-coached Tigers defense and moving forward.

“We’re really fortunate to be 3–1 with 15 turnovers,” Maynor told reporters. "We’re going to fight back. … It’s one game and nobody said we were going to win them all, but we still control our own destiny.”

The Bulldogs feature a high-powered offense led by quarterback Aqeel Glass, who many—including Sanders—believes will play on Sundays following his collegiate career. Glass, the league’s preseason Player of the Year and a player on the Reese’s Senior Bowl watchlist, enters Saturday’s matchup leading the conference in passing yards (1,511), second in passing efficiency (148.2) and ranked in the top 10 in the FCS in completions and passing yards per game.

“He’s a pro-caliber quarterback and I pray to God this kid [Glass] gets the opportunity to play at the next level,” Sanders said. “He knows the game and has a grasp on the totality of its offense.”

Along with Glass, Alabama A&M also boasts the league’s leading rusher in Gary Quarles—who also ranks in the top 10 in the FCS in yards rushing—and a talented group of receivers in Dee Anderson, Abdul-Fatai Ibrahim, Odieu Hilaire and Zabrian Moore. As an offensive unit, the Bulldogs rank first in the league in scoring offense (36.3 points per game), total offense (490.8 ypg)  and passing offense (380.5).

When the two teams met in the spring season, it was an offensive shootout that ended in a 52–43 victory for the Bulldogs and put a lot of eyeballs on a Tigers defense that had not lived up to its hype.

On that day, Jackson State gave up 533 yards of total offense as Glass threw for 440 yards and six touchdowns and ran for another. AAMU went 5-for-5 in the red zone, 5-for-11 on third downs and saw Quarles escape the backfield for a 43-yard TD. The game marked the first time the Tigers had surrendered 50 or more to a league opponent since November 2015.

But, with his full spring recruiting class—one filled with highly-touted players and former Power 5 transfers—and a revamped defense, Saturday’s game, as Sanders has noted, will look very different.

“They came here and played their butts off and played a good game and those receivers lit us up,” Sanders said of the spring game. “… But our defense is pretty darn good, and we’ve stopped some pretty good offenses that we faced.”

Those opponents with lethal offenses include Florida A&M, which was held to six points, and FBS program Louisiana Monroe (coached by Terry Bowden, son of the late Bobby Bowden), which was held to just 12.

CJ Holmes, a senior defensive back for the Tigers, knows what is at stake on Saturday. Holmes recorded his first two interceptions as a freshman against the Bulldogs on the road in 2017, the last time JSU defeated Alabama A&M.

However, the New Orleans native knows the defense must be locked in when facing Glass and company.

Alabama A&M QB Aqueel Glass during a spring 2021 game

“He [Glass] is a smart player,” Holmes says. “I look forward to playing him every time because it’s a best-on-best matchup. [The Bulldogs] scheduled us for homecoming and that’s kind of disrespectful so we’re going in with extra motivation and a takeover mentality. This is our current roadblock of where we’re trying to get to, which is a championship.”

The Tiger defense features a plethora of playmakers in addition to Holmes. Some of their stars include safety Shilo Sanders (one of two of Deion's sons on the team), former Vanderbilt defensive back Randall Haynie and former Florida graduate transfer linebacker James Houston, who ranks second in FCS in sacks this season.

Houston, who has acclimated himself to the SWAC, did not expect his contribution to the team to be this impactful so soon.

“I never had this many sacks in a season,” Houston says. “I didn’t really rush the quarterback at Florida but it feels good and I want to keep going.”

Houston will be tasked with containing Glass, and he says the key to doing so is making the offense one-dimensional, similar to what Grambling did last week.

“We’re definitely going to go after him, try to stop their running attack early and try to make him throw nearly 60 passes like he did last game,” Houston says. “If we do that, the defense is going to eat.

“They’ve been talking a little smack but when you’re those dudes, you’re going to shine when the lights come on. We’re ready to work.”

Offensively, the Tigers are not short of weapons. Quarterback Shedeur Sanders, son of Deion, ranks second in the SWAC in passing yards (1,093) and leads the league in passing efficiency (151.7). Wide receivers Joshua Lanier (Alabama transfer), Malachi Wideman (Tennessee transfer), Keith Corbin (Houston transfer), senior Warren Newman and freshman Trevonte Rucker are other key players in the JSU offense.

While his team is 3–1, Deion and his players know the offense has not performed near its best. Jackson State enters Saturday’s game ranked ninth in the SWAC in scoring offense (19.0), eighth in total offense (324.3 yards per game) and last in rushing offense (51 ypg).

“I feel like we are on a journey uphill and we’re not even close to hitting our peak,” Shedeur says. “The defense has really been saving us this season and we can’t put that on them. We have to go out there and put up numbers.”

The Tigers' best offensive performance came against an Eddie George-led Tennessee State team on Sept. 11 in the Southern Heritage Classic. As Shedeur continues to build trust with his teammates and his offensive line, he believes it is the perfect moment for the offense to take a leap forward.

“I feel like our receivers are better than their defensive backs,” Shedeur says. “We’ve stopped ourselves, nobody has really stopped us. … We’ve gotten all the first games out of the way that have tested our character, so now it is time for us to make a run.”

Deion Sanders told reporters that he plans to open up the offense to allow for more flexibility and creativity in schemes, with the thought of putting the team’s playmakers in the best position to succeed and convert on third and fourth downs, moments where the Tigers have struggled this season.

“It is scary to think where we are and we have not lived up to our expectations,” Deion said. “We’re going to do some things that are unique, and I can’t wait to see how it plays out.”

Going up against a Bulldogs’ defense that ranks ninth in scoring D (giving up 35 ppg) and seventh in total defense (384.8 ypg), they could be in for a big day.

“I can’t say their defense is great, I’m not going to tell that lie,” Deion Sanders told the media. “They’ve made some mistakes, but we hope to capitalize on their mistakes they’ve made.

“They are going to show up prepared to stop the run but they are going to have to deal with us in the passing game.”

Speaking of the passing attack, Newman—a scoring threat on special teams with deadly speed at the receiver position—is prepared for a shootout. He recalled that some of his best college performances have come against the Bulldogs, including his four-touchdown outing in the spring game and a touchdown in the 2019 matchup.

“I remember catching the ball and giving a player a juke move and he fell. … I saw nothing but green grass and I knew it was time to turn up,” Newman recalled from his spring performance.

Whether he has four touchdowns or none in the game on Saturday, Newman—along with players like Holmes—have witnessed a Tigers program moving forward after being down for the last eight years.

“It feels good to win and everybody wants to be happy,” Newman said. “When we took the [Louisiana Monroe loss] this season, we learned from that. We know how it feels and we know how to bounce back. The changes and the mentality of the program have played a big difference in us winning and getting better moving forward.”

Deion Sanders and the Tigers are on the clock. 

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