Bayou Classic: Big holiday weekend crowd expected for Grambling-Southern battle for SWAC West title
NEW ORLEANS – It’s Thanksgiving week.
It’s the 45th Bayou Classic.
It’s Grambling vs. Southern.
But there’s more.
The Southwestern Athletic Conference West Division championship will be at stake when these long-time rivals meet at 4 p.m. Saturday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome as has been the case each year since 2015.
“Since I’ve been here,” Grambling coach Broderick Fobbs said Monday, “this game has decided who goes and this year is no different.”
What is different is that the Superdome also be the site of an NFC South game between the Atlanta Falcons and the first-place New Orleans Saints on Thanksgiving night, kicking off a long football weekend in the Crescent City.
“There will probably a lot more people,” Southern coach Dawson Odums said. “Some of the fans will probably stay over on Thursday. Most of them usually come on Friday, but since there’s a Thursday night game you’ll probably get some folks in town on Wednesday who will stay through Sunday.
“From an economic standpoint, it ought to be great for the City of New Orleans.”
Grambling has won the last three meetings, but this season the Tigers (4-2) are one game behind the Jaguars (5-1) in the West, but they can still claim the division by winning Saturday and claiming the head-to-head tie-breaker. Grambling has won its last three games and Southern has won its last four.
“We started out with the downs and now we’re on the ups,” Fobbs said. “It’s been a rocky road but the road has still been straight. We’re right where we want to be.”
Fobbs smiled at the suggestion that this has been a “down year” for Grambling.
“If this is a down year,” he said, “I’d like to have a down year all the time – having a chance to win a conference championship and ultimately having a chance to win a national championship.”
The winner of this game will face East Division champion Alcorn State on the Braves’ campus in Lorman, Miss., for the SWAC title. The last five SWAC championship games were played at NRG Stadium in Houston. This year’s game was scheduled to be played in Birmingham, Ala., before officials moved it to the campus of the division winner with the best record earlier in the season.
Both Fobbs and Odums endorsed having the game played on campus.
“We want that as coaches,” Odums said. “We think it’s a better venue with greater crowds and a greater atmosphere than playing in some of these domes.”
Fobbs said having the game on campus allows the SWAC “to keep our money in house” in addition to providing a better atmosphere.
“I love it,” he said. “I prefer playing on the road. I like being in hostile environments. To go into the heart of the lion is always big.”
The SWAC champion will play the MEAC champion for the Black College Football National Championship in the Celebration Bowl on Dec. 15 in Atlanta.
Fobbs pointed out that he was born “three months and 22 days” before the first Bayou Classic was played in 1974.
“I was reared in it,” he said. “I’m pretty sure I was wearing black and gold.”
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards and New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell were among the officials who spoke at a news conference on the Superdome floor Monday morning. Edwards looked at the Grambling officials seated to his right, then the Southern officials seated to his left.
“I feel like we’re at the weigh in,” Edwards quipped, noting that the Bayou Classic can resemble a heavyweight fight.
Grambling President Rick Gallot called the Classic “the biggest rivalry in all of (Historically Black Colleges and Universities),” but noted that the rivalry is distinctive in that outside of Thanksgiving week, “we pull for each other in a family kind of way.”
As usual there will be a series of Bayou Classic events leading up to the signature Battle of the Bands on Friday night. A bonus this year is that both bands will perform at halftime of the Falcons-Saints game.
Odums noted that 65,000 people attended the annual Magic City Classic between Alabama A&M and Alabama State last month in Birmingham.
“The last time I checked, the Superdome holds 72,000,” Odums said. “It’s going to be sold out Thursday night. Let’s join our beloved Saints in selling out.”
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. His blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. 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. You can follow…