The champion of the Southwestern Athletic Conference will be determined on Dec. 8 when the annual title game is played at Birmingham's Legion Field. But the way things are shaping up, the winner of the SWAC's East Division could be decided at that same stadium more than a month earlier, when Alabama A&M and Alabama State meet in the Magic City Classic on Oct. 27.
A&M and ASU are starting to separate from the other three teams in the East Division. The Bulldogs (5-0, 4-0 SWAC) are off to their best start in 46 years. The Hornets (3-2, 3-1) are right behind A&M in the standings, having won three of their past four since a season-opening, non-conference loss to Bethune-Cookman.
Both teams have good opportunities to continue their winning ways on Saturday with games against a pair of one-win opponents. A&M travels to Mississippi Valley State (1-3, 1-1) for a 2 p.m. kickoff, while ASU hosts Texas Southern (1-4, 1-2) beginning at 1 p.m.
Turnovers have been one of the keys for both teams so far this season. A&M hasn't been committing them, and ASU has forced bunches of them.
The Bulldogs have turned the ball over only twice all season. Senior quarterback Deaunte Mason has thrown 109 passes without an interception. He has completed 69 percent of his attempts and passed for a total of 960 yards and nine touchdowns. Mason has been named the SWAC offensive player of the week each of the past three weeks.
"The thing we really spent a lot of time working on this offseason was not committing turnovers," A&M coach Anthony Jones said. "That was something we really felt like we had to get under control. So far, all that preaching and talking is paying off in a way that's helping us to win a lot of games."
Meanwhile, ASU has forced nine turnovers in the past four games, and it has been a true team effort. The Hornets have had a total of 14 different players who have made an interception, forced a fumble or recovered a fumble.
"Our defense has been the backbone of our program for a while here," ASU coach Reggie Barlow said. "It's great to see this group of guys making plays and getting turnovers. Hopefully it gives our guys confidence knowing we can create turnovers and score points with the turnovers. We're hoping to build on that."
Jacksonville State (2-2, 1-1 Ohio Valley Conference) will be seeking a measure of revenge against Tennessee Tech (2-3, 0-2). Tech has beaten JSU each of the past two seasons, losses that cost the Gamecocks a share of the OVC championship in 2010 and the outright title in 2011.
"We had very inconsistent games with them the past two years," JSU coach Jack Crowe said. "Having the ability to finish them has been lacking in most cases. But I don't think we match up poorly with them. All we need to do is for everyone to take care of their responsibility and go out and play."
Crowe said one of the keys for JSU will be containing quarterback Tre Lamb, who ranks seventh nationally in passing efficiency (159.63) and eighth in passing yards per game (283.6).
Miles (4-1, 2-0 SIAC) will attempt to extend its winning streak to five games against a Clark Atlanta team that has lost three in a row.
The Panthers (1-4, 1-2) have been outscored by an average margin of 32-9 in their four losses this season. Their only victory was 20-17 against Lane on Sept. 8.
The Golden Bears are coming off a 50-7 victory over Benedict in which they had a season-high 602 yards in total offense.
Samford (4-1, 2-1 Southern Conference) will try to avoid a letdown after losing for the first time this season and missing out on a chance to take sole possession of first place in the league.
"(Last week) could have been a big game for us, but it wasn't," Samford coach Pat Sullivan said of the Bulldogs' 35-16 loss to Georgia Southern. "But I still like this football team. I think out attitude is good."
The Citadel (3-2, 2-1) has lost two in a row since starting the season 3-0. The Citadel is averaging 308.2 yards per game on the ground and only 88 yards passing.
With games coming up against SIAC West Division co-leader Miles and Tuskegee, Stillman (3-2, 2-0) cannot afford to slip up against winless Benedict (0-5, 0-2).
Benedict ranks last in the 10-team SIAC in scoring defense, allowing 33.8 points per game, and is ninth in scoring offense with an average of 11.6 ppg. The Tigers have lost their past two games by a combined score of 83-17.
Tuskegee (3-1, 2-0 SIAC) is coming off a 671-yard offensive outburst against Fort Valley State and now faces a Morehouse defense that ranks next-to-last in the conference in yards allowed.
Morehouse (2-3, 1-1) has given up an average of 371.6 yards per game this season. But the Maroon Tigers has their best defensive performance of the year last week, allowing a total of 233 yards — and only 13 rushing — in a victory over Clark Atlanta.