Dawson Odums’ first Bayou Classic experience wasn’t a super memorable one.
It was 2011 and Odums, then an assistant coach for Southern University, scanned the crowd at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome to soak in the atmosphere.
“I looked up in the stands and there really wasn’t anybody there,” he recalled in his weekly press conference. “It really didn’t mean a whole lot the first time.”
The Jaguars suffered their worst margin of defeat in the game’s 38-year history, losing to Grambling 36-12 to finish off a 4-7 season.
It was the fourth straight year Southern came out on the wrong end of the rivalry, and Odums knew something had to change.
“I said to myself that the only way the Bayou Classic can be relevant is that Southern University and Grambling must have programs that are relevant,” Odums says.
One year later, he had been promoted to interim head coach of the Jags, following the demotion of former coach Stump Mitchell. Odums led his team to a 38-33 victory and ultimately earned the full-time title at Southern.
That win helped reinvigorate the rivalry, which will see its 47th edition take place Saturday at Independence Stadium in Shreveport.
Odums may see a fairly familiar sight when he glances into the slightly empty stands—which will allow for 50% capacity, approximately 25,000 fans—but it’ll come with a much different background story this time.
The Jags have won each of the past two meetings with the Tigers and currently boast a 4-1 record throughout their COVID-driven spring season, which in itself is an accomplishment.
And even if the game will look drastically different from the traditional Bayou Classic—normally played in an electric Superdome with an iconic Battle of the Bands event—Odums knows the intensity of the contest will remain the same.
“I don’t know if anybody ever thought we’d get to this point or ever thought that we would play,” Odums says. “Everybody thought we’d wait until the fall. But it is the Bayou Classic. I think once we get to the field and you feel that environment—hopefully it’s a good environment—we’re going to need to be ready to play. It is the 47th Bayou Classic. Whether it feels like it or not, that is the title. So you better be ready to play.”
Southern will have its hands full again this weekend, despite facing a Grambling team that holds an 0-3 record.
Two of the Tigers’ three losses this season have come by seven points or fewer, and they haven’t played a game since March 20, giving them nearly a month to prepare for their battle with the Jags.
“They’re able to get a jump start on (us) as far as break downs,” says Odums, who was also quick to turn down the notion that Grambling might be playing with a slight advantage. “But we’ve had two weeks, and I think we understand the team that we’re playing. We know we’ve got a great opponent that we’re getting ready to play on Saturday—a team that we highly respect. You’ve got to throw records out the window. They’re a well-coached football team. They’re going to be organized, and they’re going to be structured. This is Southern versus Grambling. We know it’s going to be a street fight. Don’t worry about the records. We’re going to have to let the play do the talking for you.”
Leading the way for Southern will be redshirt senior Ladarius Skelton, who will be playing in his third Bayou Classic.
The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Pine Bluff, Arkansas, native leads the Jags in both passing and rushing, accounting for 668 yards and five touchdowns so far this season.
“We have an identity,” Odums says. “We know who we are, and we know what we’re about. We know we have a very good offensive line. We know we have very good running backs. We know Ladarius is a very good quarterback that is just as good of a runner as anybody in the country. When you have those tools in the toolbox, you might as well use them. We use them to our advantage. We’ve just got to go execute our game plan. If we do that, I think we’ll be in line for success.”
The Bayou Classic is currently listed as the final regular season game of the year for Southern, but that is still a bit up in the air.
The Jaguars are currently in third in the SWAC West, but a Prairie View win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff could force a three-way tie in the division.
The SWAC championship game is scheduled for May 1, leaving a couple weeks of wiggle room for the conference to decide how it should proceed.
But for now, Odums and his Jags have turned all their focus to this weekend’s matchup, knowing how the implications of the matchup extend deeper than just their “2020” season.
“My message has always been that no matter where the teams are playing, no matter where they are, no matter what the records are—do you know how hard it is to have something to call your own?” Odums says. “This is our own. This is about Southern and Grambling on the biggest stage. This is the 47th annual Bayou Classic. It’s the grandaddy of them all. There’s nothing like it. Get your popcorn, sit back and let’s enjoy the show.”