ATLANTA — As confetti laid sprinkled across the 40 and 50-yard lines on the field inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday, it was an unfamiliar territory for Jackson State. Coming into the 2021 Celebration Bowl, the Tigers had found themselves in the winners circle of nine consecutive games over 84 days, dating back to the Tigers’ 24–17 win against Delta State on Sept. 25.
In those wins—that include a combined average margin of victory of nearly 19 points—each one brought with it a greater display of national spotlight, recognition and renewed interest in JSU football and the HBCU football landscape. Even with the adversity that the team faced when Tigers head coach Deion Sanders was not on the sidelines coaching due to complications from his foot surgery, the “I Believe” mission was still in effect. Or, as Sanders likes to put it, each win began to turn doubters into believers.
But on the third Saturday in December—heading into the holiday season and the kickoff to college football bowl season—the Tigers were not getting the celebratory champagne baths or the postgame laughs after a win.
South Carolina State was. While the Bulldogs where hoisting the trophy on the field in celebration of its first victory in the iconic bowl game while recording its fifth black college football national championship, Sanders and the Tigers walked off the field with a 31–10 loss to the Bulldogs.
Celebration Bowl: South Carolina State Ends Jackson State's Magical Run
“We tried our best, but we got our butts kicked,” Sanders said in the postgame press conference. “We were a little lackadaisical, we did not have that fire ... our defense has never played like they did today.
“But what happened today … I can fix that and I am going to fix that.”
All season, even when the running game struggled and the passing attack was stifled, the Tigers' defense was always the great equalizer, the game changer and the savior in the moments when it mattered most. Jackson State suffered a 21-point loss to the Bulldogs, a number that holds much significance to the program and to the 2021 season.
Sanders—who was hired on Sept. 21, 2020 as the 21st head coach of the program— led a team that allowed only one of its opponents—Texas Southern—to score a total of 21 points in a game while holding all the other opponents to less than 21. They also held three opposing teams from scoring in the fourth quarter this season.
The “Dark Side” defense had been dominant in conjunction with Sanders‘ mantra for his players to be “smart, tough, fast and discipline.” In addition to allowing 31—which included Bulldogs wide receiver Shaquan Davis celebrating one of his three touchdowns with the iconic Deion Sanders “Primetime Shuffle”—and losing by 21 points, the Tigers’ defense allowed 21 points alone in the second half while giving up more total offense, passing yards and rushing yards than it allowed on average per game.
In South Carolina State’s five scoring possessions, three of their touchdown drives started within Jackson State's 20-yard line thanks to the Tigers' miscues and inefficiency on offense. The Bulldogs field goal was the end result of a drive that started on the Tigers’ 45 while their final touchdown of the game started from their own seven-yard line.
But, even in the midst of game that many thought would be a classic “David versus Goliath” matchup favoring the Tigers, the loss—believe it or not—could be the best thing that happened for Jackson State. Not only will it light a fire inside the minds of returning players during the offseason, it’s a fire that’s blazing in the mind of Sanders moving forward.
A minor setback for a major comeback.
”I am already thinking about spring ball and matchups and how we get these kids quicker, stronger, faster,” Sanders said. ”I’ve already called several coaches around the country to see what they do because I am wise enough to glean from other men.
“We are going to come back stronger, ready and prepared.”
If it’s several things that Sanders does well, he knows how to keep a promise—which stems from the Tigers subpar spring season to a historic run—win games, provoke change, challenge the status quo and be legendary.
Not only did Sanders allude to the future of JSU‘s program after the game, the Tigers landing five-star wide receiver Travis Hunter—the No. 1 recruit in Sports Illustrated‘s 99 rankings who flipped from Florida State during the early signing period on Wednesday—bodes well for Sanders sticking to his mission.
A mission, he believes, that will change the narrative surrounding HCBU football and one that Jackson State will be at the forefront of achieving.
"HBCUs would be so much better if we were unified," Sanders said. “I’m tired of HBCUs talking about how they used to be. I’m about the way that it is going to be.
“HBCUs is what’s now, not what was. I’m tired of talking yesterday. I get tired of hearing that we are not good for a kid that has four or five stars, we are more than good enough.”
Saturday's loss was not the ending that seniors Keonte Hampton, Warren Newman, CJ Holmes, along with transfers Josh Lanier, Keith Corbin, Randall Haynie and Antwan Owens to name a few—wanted after an unprecedented season. However, the sky is the limit for Jackson State.
Jackson State (11–2) recorded its first 11-win season in program history. Sanders accomplished a record milestone in a matter of 12 months that JSU legendary coaches like W.C. Gorden, James “Big Daddy” Carson, Robert Hill, Robert Hughes and Rick Comegy never achieved.
That coupled with a SWAC title, the program’s first Celebration Bowl appearance, college football’s No. 1 recruit, another exciting recruiting class, tons of media exposure and a national spotlight, the future remains bright in Jackson.
While Sanders and the Tigers did not become the second SWAC team to win the Celebration Bowl on Saturday, he restored faith to a program that was dormant from a winning season since 2013.
He united a city that bought into his “I Believe” mission. And that journey, Sanders says, will continue.
“We’ve done some wonderful things but we aren’t don’t yet.”
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