This wasn’t exactly how everyone predicted the race to the SWAC championship would turn out, but give Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Jackson State credit for proving the doubters wrong.
“We’ve been prepared for the championship since August,” UAPB running back Justin Billings said. “Our whole motto all training camp was like, ‘Get ready to win in December.’”
A year ago, UAPB was just celebrating its first winning season since 2006, but smarting over the fact that it came so close to making the conference championship game. The Golden Lions drew only a little vote of confidence from the SWAC preseason poll voters, earning two first-place votes but predicted to finish third in the Western Division.
Coach Monte Coleman wasn’t disheartened.
“I know what we did was, we took care of our business,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how they picked us. They could have picked us last. We knew the type of football team we have. We had 10 starters coming back on defense, so we just had to take care of our business, and that’s what we did. We couldn’t worry about what other teams were going to do.”
Not only did Coleman’s Lions win the Western Division, they dominated it with an 8-1 SWAC record, finishing five games ahead of Southern and Prairie View A&M. They clinched the West so early, they had to wait two more weeks to find out whom they would face today in Birmingham, Ala.
And three more weeks to play one of their biggest games in school history. A win will give UAPB its first outright conference title, its first since sharing the 1966 crown and set a school record with 10 wins on the season.
Quarterback Ben Anderson said it hasn’t been hard for the Lions to keep up their drive during the layoff.
“It’s the championship,” Anderson said. “So, it’s the game everybody wants to play in. It’s not too hard to stay motivated. That’s all we practice for. That’s all we’re waiting for.”
Jackson State was in third place in the East when UAPB clinched the West, but their path to Birmingham was simple — beat Alabama A&M and Alcorn State, and they would be in.
The Tigers did, handily in both games. Now, they’re going for another SWAC championship, one year after being banned from postseason play for a low Academic Progress Rate.
“I think it’s a great opportunity to put the kids in the best opportunity possible to win the football game,” Jackson State coach Rick Comegy said, not going into much detail about what it meant to go from postseason ban to title game. “We’re happy to fight back within the conference and be back in the championship.”
UAPB and Jackson State met earlier this season in Pine Bluff, with the Golden Lions taking a 34-24 victory. It wasn’t a completely dominating performance by the Lions, who were outgained in total offense that evening, but it started a winning streak that could match a school-record seven games with a victory today. The 2006 team that lost to Alabama A&M in the SWAC final holds that record.
Jackson State put together its own string since the loss. The Tigers edged Alabama State 37-34 and needed overtime to beat Mississippi Valley State 14-7, but they cruised in their final three games, winning by 14 or more points. They tied Alabama State atop the East, but their head-to-head victory in Montgomery gave them the ticket to Birmingham.
Coleman has seen improvements in the Tigers since their first meeting.
“The quarterback is playing well,” Coleman said, as Jackson State actually employs a two-quarterback system. “They’re doing a better job on defense. They’re a good football team. They were when we played them. We felt very fortunate to come out with that victory, and it’s going to be a good football game come the 8th.”
Now, the Lions have to beat the Tigers a second time to win it all. And the only thing that concerns Coleman about Jackson State … is Jackson State, itself, a team that’s played in this game three times before (winning only in 2007).
“They have a rich history of winning,” Coleman said. “They’ve been there before. They’re coached well. They’ve got a quarterback similar to the one they had last year. When you add all that together, they’re a good football team. The thing we’ve got to do is just play the type of ball that we play and let the chips fall where they may.”
15 (last in 2007)—SWAC championships*—1 (1966)
1-2—SWAC title game record**—0-1
7-2—2012 conference record—8-1
Rick Comegy—Head coach—Monte Coleman
28-27 (5 years)—Records at school—48-30 (6 years)
*Includes outright and shared championships before SWAC championship game began in 1999. UAPB’s lone SWAC championship is shared with three other schools.
**Jackson State won in 2007 and lost in 1999 and 2008. UAPB lost in 2006.