ATLANTA — From Jackson State's victory over Alcorn State in its final regular-season matchup to its win over Prairie View A&M in the SWAC Championship game on Dec. 4, Deion Sanders's message to his players remained the same: We not done yet, we got one more.
The Tigers (11–1, 8–0) will play in their first Celebration Bowl in program history when they take the field Saturday against South Carolina State at noon E. In a clash between champions of the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) and the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC), Sanders and Jackson State have another opportunity to add more history to an unprecedented 2021 season.
With a fourth HBCU national championship on the line on Saturday, the Tigers have the opportunity to put the exclamation mark on an historic ’21 season in the city that the NFL Hall of Famer calls home. In his 14-year NFL career between the Falcons (first-round draft choice in ’89), 49ers, Cowboys, Washington Football Team and the Ravens, it was the city of Atlanta that chose Sanders.
“That [Celebration Bowl] was one of our goals that we strived for,” Sanders said in Friday’s news conference. “To not only be back but with my two sons, the entire football team and with Jackson fans, alumni and everybody … I love it.”
The road to Atlanta for JSU—a program that had gone through six difficult seasons before Sanders’s arrival—has been one filled with tons of national exposure, numerous accolades and the most wins in the program’s history. With the program garnering high praise as it has become the catalyst to a rejuvenated frontier of empowerment within HBCU sports, this is what Sanders expected when he took job at JSU in September of 2020.
While the Tigers’ 2021 season won’t be complete until triple zeroes reside on the jumbotron inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Sanders and the program’s “I Believe” philosophy has led to the emergence of a new theme for Saturday’s bowl game: “We here.”
The stage has been set. With a primetime game on ABC, it gives JSU another opportunity to expand the exposure for HBCUs and the program, which comes several days after Sanders flipped the decision of Travis Hunter, the nation’s top recruit in the 2022 class, from Florida State to Jackson State.
While the move shook up the balance of the college football landscape, Sanders was fine with provoking a change—one that has been needed for nearly the last three decades.
“That is why God led me to Jackson State University, an HBCU in the SWAC,” Sanders said. “I tried to tell ya’ll … nobody wanted to listen, you thought I was just running my mouth. And it was not that. I truly believe it is going to be change. Everything I’ve done in my life I have provoked change, why not now?
“This is a new generation; this is a new thing. We got to be open to change.”
On Saturday, Jackson State will get an opponent in South Carolina State (6–5, 5–0) that went unblemished in its conference under legendary coach and MEAC Coach of the Year Oliver “Buddy” Pough, who has led the Bulldogs to eight shared or outright MEAC titles in his 20th season leading the program.
South Carolina State—who started the season 1–4—enter Saturday’s game with the second-best scoring offense in the MEAC behind the play of quarterback Corey Fields (2,144 yards, 14 touchdowns), running back Kendrell Flowers (811 yards, 10 TDs) along with top receiver Shaquan Davis (9 catches, 769 yds, 5 TDs).
The Bulldogs bring in a defense headlined by defensive backs Decobie Durant, who has recorded three interceptions and leads the team with 11 pass break ups.
“Decobie is a defensive back that when you think of defensive backs, you think of skilled guys who can run, jump and knock balls out,” Pough said. “Decobie is a tough guy. He can get in the middle of all different kinds of screens and perimeter throws that you see in the game today.”
Durant, who was named the MEAC’s Defensive Player of the Year, was not recruited heavily out of Lamar High School in Lamar, South Carolina. However, the 5-foot-11, 175-pound Durant did not give up on his dream to play college football. After sitting out the ’17 season, he made Pough a promise when he earned a scholarship on the team.
“The day I stepped foot in Coach Pough office I told them [coaches] that they would not regret it,” Durant said.
Since then, Durant has made a name for himself and looks forward to him and the defensive unit facing a lethal Tigers’ offense heavily centered around quarterback Shedeur Sanders.
“We’ve played with a chip on our shoulder all year,” Durant said. “It’s going to be a showdown.
While Durant and the Bulldogs will compete to win on Saturday, they did not shy away from acknowledging what Deion has done to change the narrative around HBCUs.
“Deion is changing the game for HBCU culture,” Durant told Sports Illustrated.
"Getting that No. 1 recruit in football is amazing. It is going to bring in a lot more people and a lot more big time players are going to make that edge to have an HBCU somewhere on their top 5 teams.
I would not be shocked if an HBCU school beat a Power 5 school.”
While Pough prides the program on uncovering hidden gems that have went on to play in the NFL, he too credited Sanders’s successful season.
“He's been here for one, less than a year, and he's won all the top awards,” Pough said. “I’ve been a coaching for 45 years and haven’t had had some of these accolades. It's been a fun run to see him rise to the top. And he's done a little bit for us all.
“But as a program, we feel that developing the down-the-line guys into guys that are just as good as some of these guys will be in four years. We think we get a better guy in the end than they had in the beginning.”
After a season of shifts in HBCU football and teams emerging, everything comes down to one game on the biggest stage. One will rise—Jackson State or South Carolina State.
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