Opinion: Don't let Jackson State football's ugly Celebration Bowl loss overshadow historic season

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ATLANTA — What was supposed to be Jackson State football's coronation as the kings of HBCU football turned into a stunning defeat at the hands of a team that barely scraped together a winning season.

The Atlanta return of Deion Sanders, who wore No. 21 for the Falcons, ended in a 21 point loss, the worst loss ever suffered in Celebration Bowl history.

Which begs the question: How did this happen? How did Jackson State (11-2), with all its Power-Five transfers, bolstered by a top-60 recruiting class in the nation, and fresh off of signing the No. 1 recruit in the country, allow South Carolina State (7-5) to spoil Sanders' homecoming, 31-10?

"South Carolina State kicked our butts," Sanders said. "Every way, every fashion. Outphysicaled us. Out threw us. Much more disciplined than us. And I feel like we were overconfident, and overlooked them as if they were just going to hand us the game."

'KICKED OUR BUTTS': Deion Sanders' Jackson State squad humbled in Celebration Bowl

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Jackson State head coach Deion Sanders coaches against South Carolina State during the Celebration Bowl in Atlanta, Ga., on Saturday December 18, 2021.
Jackson State head coach Deion Sanders coaches against South Carolina State during the Celebration Bowl in Atlanta, Ga., on Saturday December 18, 2021.

Make no mistake, Sanders did not have his team prepared. Jackson State's run-game woes surfaced again. And the defense gave up 31 points for the first time this season.

But the takeaway from Saturday's smackdown shouldn't be about the Tigers coming up short in the biggest game of the year.

It should be that a Celebration Bowl-record 48,653 fans packed into Mercedes-Benz Stadium to see a pair of teams play that had never made it to the de facto HBCU championship.

Don't let a historic Celebration Bowl loss — the most lopsided in the six-year history of the game — overshadow a historically great season for this Jackson State team.

Eleven wins is a program record. Jackson State still beat all of its SWAC opponents. Travis Hunter, the No. 1 prospect in the nation, is still signed with the Tigers. The spotlight is shining brighter on HBCU football than it has in a long time, and much of that has to do with Sanders and Jackson State.

Sanders has rejuvenated not just a football program but a conference that is now scrambling to keep pace. He has the attention of major media outlets in the country because he has turned Jackson State football into one of the nation's most fascinating stories.

In college football's version of David and Goliath, where Power Five programs overshadow the FCS with enough wealth to buy out coaches for 10s of millions of dollars and fans of those teams burn jerseys when a recruit like Hunter decides to go in another direction, it's Sanders and Jackson State with the stone firmly in hand.

A JSU program that despite being historically underfunded compared to its neighbors in the SEC, has produced four Pro Football Hall of Famers. Longing to return to the glory days of Lem Barney and Walter Payton. Leading the FCS in attendance for the past three seasons and still largely ignored by national media until Sanders arrived.

Making it to this game is a proud moment for Jackson State, which hadn't won a SWAC title since 2007 before this season. Having Sanders at the helm is a feat in itself.

But don't get it twisted. Sanders is not satisfied. He doesn't like to lose. And next year, with Hunter and another heralded signing class in tow, he'll be able to point to Saturday's stinker as evidence the Tigers can't overlook anything and end up a champion.

"This has been a wonderful year, but I promise you that we're going to come back stronger, and ready, and prayerfully prepared," Sanders said. "South Carolina State, God bless them. They kicked our butts and they deserve it."

Still-historic Tigers

Jackson State football won 11 games for the first time in program history this season. The game-by-game results:

  • Sept. 5: JSU 7, Florida A&M 6 (Miami Gardens, Fla.)

  • Sept. 11: JSU 38, Tennessee State 16 (Memphis, Tenn.)

  • Sept. 18: Louisiana-Monroe 12, JSU 7

  • *Sept. 25: JSU 24, Delta State 17

  • Oct. 9: JSU 61, Alabama A&M 15

  • *Oct. 16: JSU 28, Alabama State 7

  • *Oct. 23: JSU 42, Bethune-Cookman 12

  • Oct. 30: JSU 28, MVSU 19

  • *Nov. 6: JSU 41, Texas Southern 21

  • Nov. 13: JSU 21, Southern 17

  • *Nov. 20: JSU 24, Alcorn State 10

  • *Dec. 4: JSU 27, Prairie View A&M 10 (SWAC championship)

  • Saturday: South Carolina State 31, JSU 10 (Celebration Bowl)

*denotes game played at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium

This article originally appeared on Mississippi Clarion Ledger: Jackson State's Celebration Bowl loss shouldn't mask historic season