Boy, did I have it wrong about the West.
From TheDerisoReport’s preseason preview of the Southwestern Athletic Conference 2009 football campaign, my order-of-finish predictions …
The only one that’s right is UAPB.
My question, back then, about Prairie View — coming off its best season in four decades — was whether the program could manage success, not to mention losing senior quarterback Mark Spivey (No. 4 in the SWAC last season) and locker-room leader Zach East, a first-team 2008 AP FCS All-America defender.
Head coach Henry Frazier’s Panthers still boast plenty of talent across the roster, including their top rusher (Donald Babers, who led the conference with 1,085 yards in 2008, and is No. 3 this year), and most of a defensive unit that allowed just 238 yards a game to finish No. 3 nationally a season ago in total defense under the leadership of coordinator Heishma Northern.
There was also a favorable schedule, with one fewer game than opponents and well-placed byes before Grambling and, this week, SWAC East-leading Alabama A&M.
Some, including yours truly, might have thought that Prairie View had peaked. Instead, PV was actually poised for a big run.
Baber copped to it, back in the preseason: “I’m ready to lead the charge for the team. Anything less than playing in the championship game and winning it would be a disappointment.”
Grambling stood in Prairie View’s way. GSU had fallen to PV just 11 times over the previous 60 seasons, leaving out a pair of forfeits and a tie. They’d ruined Prairie View’s sterling 2008, too. The Panthers streaked to a 9-1 record, and were vying for first place in the SWAC West until the final game of the season — when Grambling beat Southern to take the top spot.
Frazier, I wrote in TDR’s SWAC preview, has led the Panthers to emotional wins over Jackson State and Southern, neither of whom Prairie View had bested since the 1970s, but hasn’t beaten Grambling since the mid-1980s. A tight race in the West, as we saw last season, could come down to that game.
Grambling lost 35-32 on Oct. 2, slingshotting Prairie View to the top of the SWAC West, where it has remained ever since.
With tiebreakers added in, Prairie View (5-1 overall, 4-0 in the SWAC) has established a commanding advantage over its principal Western rivals. PV boasts a two-game lead against second-place Grambling (5-3; 3-1), and a three-win margin over fourth-place Southern (5-3; 2-2) — with only three games left on the Panthers’ slate. Second-place Texas Southern stands at 3-4 overall and 2-1 in league play; last-place Arkansas-Pine Bluff is 4-3 and 2-2.
Alabama A&M travels to Prairie View this week in a battle of division leaders, and a SWAC Championship Game preview if the season were over today. The Panthers play for the first time since a 16-14 win at Southern on Thursday, Oct. 22.
Let’s say PV loses against the Bulldogs, who just ended a two-game skid by notching their fifth consecutive victory over Alabama State in the Magic City Classic. Prairie View would still have to tank — and against teams it’s likely to be favored against — in order to crack the door for someone else.
The Panthers finish at 2-5 Alcorn State and then with 4-3 Arkansas-Pine Bluff at home. Both are coming off losses; UAPB fell to Southern while Texas Southern dropped Alcorn.
Pine Bluff will have to win out to advance, beating Grambling and Prairie View along the way, and hope Southern drops one game, too. Grambling or Texas Southern have to go undefeated (they face each other on Thursday, Nov. 12) , and hope for at least two losses by the Panthers. Southern needs to win out (the Jags meet Grambling on Nov. 28) and for PV to lose on each of its three remaining dates.
That’s a pretty smooth path to Prairie View-ham.
Nobody is going to accuse the Panthers of playing pretty on offense. But they are quietly effective, and they still boast a dangerous group of defenders. PV ranks first in the SWAC for scoring and red-zone defense, second in pass efficiency and third-down conversions, first in kickoff coverage and field goals, third in time of possession.
Good enough to win, over and over. Good enough to change long-held preconceptions about a once-down trodden program forever.
“I don’t know how they look at us, but they better be ready for us,” Frazier said, during the SWAC’s preseason media days. “We are going to prepare for every game extremely hard. Complacency will not set in.”