Bayou Classic bigger than usual for Grambling, Southern

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NEW ORLEANS — The Bayou Classic has a become a fixture in New Orleans on Thanksgiving weekend.

Every Turkey Day week, the football teams and fans from Grambling State University and Southern University take over downtown New Orleans for their regular season-ending football game as well as an ever-growing series of ancillary events.

But despite all the history and tradition of the Bayou Classic and the long-time success of the Tigers and Jaguars football programs, there has never been a Bayou Classic football game quite like the one that will take place beginning at 4 p.m. Saturday inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

For the first time, Grambling and Southern enter the Bayou Classic with identical 8-0 records in the Southwestern Athletic Conference. The winner will not only claim the all-important bragging rights for the next year they will also complete an undefeated SWAC regular season and West Division title and a berth in the SWAC Championship Game a week later in Houston.

“It really remains you of the heyday when the Bayou Classic was sold out and so many fans were coming to watch two great programs compete for that weekend,” Jaguars coach Dawson Odums said Tuesday at a news conference on the floor of the Superdome. “It’s on display. There are two fine institutions. — Southern University and Grambling State University — that are going to be playing for an opportunity to go to the SWAC championship. It doesn’t get any better than that.”

Tickets are available for the game, which wasn’t always the case this close to game day. But in recent years attendance has lagged. Two years ago the Bayou Classic was a winner-take-all match-up for the West Division title, but that game didn’t match a pair of undefeated teams as this one does.

Grambling coach Broderick Fobbs accurately called the annual match-up “a sibling rivalry.”

To whatever extent this sibling rivalry can be intensified it will be because the winner will take an undefeated conference record into the SWAC championship game against East Division champion Alcorn State.

“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Fobbs said. “The opportunity to play in the Louisiana Superdome, on Louisiana soil, with both schools being successful at their peak at this particular time. That’s about as good as it gets.”

For generations, the climax to the college football regular season in Louisiana came when LSU and Tulane would meet in front of large crowds in Tiger Stadium, Tulane Stadium and eventually the Superdome.

But once Tulane left the Southeastern Conference in 1966 the Tigers and Green Wave ceased to be conference rivals. For the final decades of the annual rivalry it was dominated by LSU.

The closest that rivalry came to matching this week’s Bayou Classic during the last half-century came in 1973. Tulane had failed to win in 24 consecutive meetings, but a record crowd of nearly 90,000 fans showed up in Tulane Stadium and saw a Green Wave team that would go on to play in the Bluebonnet Bowl exorcise their demons in a 14-0 victory against the No. 8 Tigers, who would go on to play in the Orange Bowl.

On Saturday, New Orleans will once again be the site of a regular-season finale between two long-time rivals from Louisiana with high stakes for both teams.

“It is special to have that opportunity for everyone to come out and fill up the Superdome,” Fobbs said. “Basically everything is going to happen after one game. We’re going to decide who will go to the championship and who won’t.

“Both programs in the state of Louisiana are successful and undefeated. I believe there’s no better football than in the state of Louisiana. There are no two better schools in this conference than Grambling State University and Southern University.”

I’ve seen a lot of rivalry games over the years and I’ve never seen two fan bases get together and each enjoy a game and each other as much as Grambling’s and Southern’s do — even when the team’s records are much less than impressive than they are this year.

“Both teams are undefeated,” Odums said. “Both teams are led the same way. Both teams have the same goals. Both teams will show up on Saturday. Both teams have overcome adversity. Both teams will decide which way it’s going to go — one to Houston one home for Christmas.

“There is no better way to decide the fate of two great institutions than on the field in front of thousands and on the TV in front of millions than right here in what we call Louisiana’s Bayou Classic. If that don’t get the blood flowing in your veins, then stay at home.”

Odums summed up this week thusly: “Nothing goes better with turkey than the Bayou Classic.”

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Les East

Les East

SportsNOLA/WHNO-TV/Times-Picayune

Les East is a nationally renown freelance journalist. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists and Louisiana Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association.

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