Any questions about Jackson State football transitioning from the Coach Prime Experience to T.C. Taylor were answered by halftime Saturday night.
The Tigers, coming off back-to-back embarrassments in the Celebration Bowl, showed that they will be in contention for the SWAC and HBCU national titles again in 2023 with a convincing 37-7 win over an outmatched South Carolina State team in the MEAC/SWAC Challenge, breaking the curse the conference has had over them in recent years.
The Tiger offense lost quarterback Shedeur Sanders, who followed his father Deion to Colorado along with two-way player Travis Hunter. No matter.
Virginia Tech transfer Jason Brown guided the JSU attack with precision and patience, throwing for 362 yards and three touchdowns. In contrast, Wofford transfer Irv Mulligan led a physical running attack, rushing for over 100 yards and opening the game with a 46-yard touchdown burst down the right sideline.
Another question is how Jackson State would fare without the pomp and circumstance Sanders brought to the program in three seasons. While media impresario Sean “P. Diddy” Combs was at CenterParc Stadium to present a million-dollar check to JSU, the focus was on the field. After a turnover led to an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, T.C. Taylor immediately took the offending player aside to let him know that wasn’t acceptable. Change has indeed come to Jackson, Mississippi.
Taylor, a former standout wide receiver at JSU, understands the tradition and culture of his alma mater, making him incredibly qualified to lead the football program. He has graciously answered questions about following Sanders up with the confidence of a man ready for the moment. Naturally, as the clock wound down on the big win, the Jackson State contingent in the A was chanting “T.C.! T.C.! T.C.,” a true sign of love and admiration for the new head Tiger.
As for the old Bulldog heading into his final campaign, it likely wasn’t how Buddy Pough envisioned his 22nd season opener going.
The South Carolina State offense was shaky at best and frozen at worst, making a tough job that much tougher for the South Carolina State defense. S.C. State forced a turnover and a missed field goal in the first quarter, but Jackson State still led 17-0 at the half. The dam finally broke with Brown firing scoring tosses to D.J. Stevens and Andre Hunt to open a 31-0 lead in the third quarter.
SCSU avoided the shutout with 22 seconds left in the game as quarterback Corey Fields Jr. threw a touchdown pass to tight end Keshawn Toney.
Pough, the dean of HBCU football coaches, will likely have to make some tough decisions in short order as his team has trips to Charlotte and Georgia Tech before playing the Citadel at home on September 23. As bad as his team looked Saturday night, the MEAC is not exactly an imposing league outside of defending champion North Carolina Central – a team the Bulldogs defeated 26-24 last season.
If Pough can motivate his guys to forget Saturday’s disaster and focus on the remaining schedule, South Carolina State can still be as dangerous as anyone else in the MEAC.
As for Jackson State, a win of this magnitude gives them confidence for their next big challenge – the final Orange Blossom Classic to feature Florida A&M next Sunday night on ESPN.
Both Taylor and Rattlers head coach Willie Simmons have stressed that this game has decided the SWAC East each of the last two seasons, and this year promises to be no different.
While FAMU was favored in preseason polls, Jackson State showed Saturday night that, to paraphrase Nature Boy Ric Flair, to be the team, you’ve got to beat the team.
Even after changing coaches and an entire roster, Jackson State is still the team to beat in the SWAC.