The start of the Deion Sanders era at Jackson State is off to as good of a start as anyone could have hoped, and now the Tigers have their biggest test yet: a road game against Alabama State on ESPN2.
Jackson State has not had a winning record in six seasons and hasn't won the SWAC since 2007 but is off to a 3-0 start, including a 2-0 mark in conference play. Yes, Mississippi Valley State is one of the worst teams in the conference and JSU only edged Grambling State by five points, but this is major progress for a team that was 4-8 in 2019.
The Hornets will be a dangerous opponent after beating Jackson State in five of their last six matchups, including a 31-16 win in 2019. They haven't played since a 24-21 loss at home against Southern on Feb. 24, but that's also given Alabama State plenty of time to iron out issues.
Can Sanders and Co. continue to shine under the national television spotlight? Let's take a look at the keys to the matchup.
Jackson State at Alabama State
Kickoff: Saturday, March 20 at 4 p.m. ET
Spread: Jackson State -6.5
When Jackson State Has the Ball
The Tigers have the No. 4 scoring offense (43.0 ppg) and No. 10 total offense (454.0 ypg) in the nation behind a dangerous three-headed rushing attack. Tyson Alexander leads the way with 263 yards on 36 attempts (7.3 ypc), while Kymani Clarke (45 att., 189 yds., 2 TDs) has been a solid complementary back. Former Florida transfer Jalon Jones has been the top scorer on the ground, too, with three touchdowns and 129 yards on 26 attempts for the dual-threat quarterback.
Jones' health, though, is in question after he left last week's game with a groin injury. Sanders said that he pulled Jones for freshman Quincy Casey to ensure that he could play this week, but Sanders also said that he looked a little sore in practice earlier in the week. Jones is 43-of-64 passing through three games with 593 yards, eight touchdowns, and no interceptions.
Alabama State should provide a decent test after finishing fourth in the SWAC last year in scoring defense (27.4 ypg) and third in total defense (372.2 ypg). Linebacker Colton Adams led the Hornets with 11 tackles in their season opener after pacing the team with eight TFLs last season. Also keep an eye on Naytron Culpepper, who led the team with three interceptions in 2019.
When Alabama State Has the Ball
Alabama State also leans heavily on its run game and is led by Ezra Gray and Jacory Merritt. The duo combined to pick up 138 yards in the season opener on 31 carries as both improved on their yards per carry averages from 2019.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Ryan Nettles had a solid debut, going 16-of-27 passing for 149 yards and two touchdowns. However, he threw a costly interception and was sacked six times, canceling out his otherwise solid rushing performance. Michael Jefferson is the top returning receiver and formed an instant connection with Nettles, hooking up five times for 47 yards and a touchdown against Southern.
The Hornets were able to cruise past the Panthers in 2019 by putting up 31 points, but that appears to be a tougher ask in Sanders' first year at the helm. Jackson State has improved its scoring defense from 27.6 points per game allowed to 14.0 through three contests. That is partly to do with a not-so-challenging schedule to start the season, but the Tigers have already forced five fumbles and registered 11 sacks through three games.
It's hard to know how Deion Sanders' time at Jackson State will end. His scandal-ridden past at Prime Prep leads one to be cautious, but there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about this marriage bearing fruit from the start. If Jalon Jones is healthy enough, the Tigers should get a fourth straight win to start the year.