BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Texas Southern coach Johnnie Cole isn't tiptoeing into the school's first Southwestern Athletic Conference championship game.
Cole and his team carry plenty of confidence going into Saturday's matchup with Alabama State at Legion Field in Birmingham.
"I think we're the best black college football team in the country," he said. "We've rolled off seven straight wins. We've dominated our conference. When you look at conference stats, we've dominated on offense and defense. We play football the old way here, run and tackle on defense, and on offense run the football."
It's a seemingly unlikely rematch from an Oct. 2 game when Texas Southern (8-3) scored two touchdowns in the final five minutes to beat Alabama State 21-7 and start its current streak. That included an interception return for a touchdown after the Hornets (7-4) drove across midfield.
Both teams won their division tiebreakers to make the championship game, Alabama State's first since 2004.
Hornets coach Reggie Barlow has come a long way, too.
He and three of his assistant coaches returned from a road loss last November to find their tires slashed, presumably by a fan disgruntled by a team on its way to a third straight losing season under Barlow.
He dismisses the event now.
"I've got AAA and they showed up very fast," Barlow said. "They changed the tires on my Range Rover and we drove on home."
But the Montgomery native and former Alabama State star also understands the impatience of his hometown fans.
"It's always hard to come home," Barlow said. "There's so much expectations and people expect things to happen really fast. I've been awfully blessed. I've won championships in just about every level I've been, or competed for them.
"I'm happy for our school. I know what it means to our alumni and fans. They want to be winners. They want to have something to cheer about. It's been a long time since they've had that."
Cole, whose parents are from nearby Talladega, doesn't expect an unfriendly reception from Alabama State fans in the game about 90 minutes from the Hornets' campus.
"It's still in the back of my mind, but I've kind of closed that chapter," he said. "Coach Barlow, I think he's done a great and fine job with that program. I've got a lot of respect for him. I want to keep this game focused on the kids."
But, he added, "It will be sweet to beat them again in the championship game."
Texas Southern brings in the SWAC's top defense, giving up 217 yards a game. Alabama State and Grambling State are tied at No. 1 in scoring defense, giving up 19.3 points for a slim edge over the Tigers (19.5).
Texas Southern's stingy defense also has racked up a league-high 42 sacks.
Texas Southern running back Marcus Wright is the SWAC's No. 2 rusher with 1,089 yards and eight touchdowns. Quarterback Arvell Nelson has passed for 1,772 yards and rushed for 529 while accounting for 17 scores. He has also been intercepted 15 times.
Alabama State is led by quarterback Devin Dominguez, who has passed for 1,508 yards and 18 touchdowns while throwing 14 picks.
"At the end of the day, it's going to come down to one of these teams' better players stepping up and making outstanding plays," Barlow said.