Schedule-makers have done Tony Hughes no favors in his bid to return Jackson State football to its former status as one of the elite programs in HBCU football.

The Tigers start 2017 with football’s version of a Murderer’s Row. Just look at the first three games on the schedule:

Strike one: JSU opens at TCU in a money game where the Tigers will earn the hard way every penny of a pay day of $525,000. TCU, only two years removed from the college football playoffs, will be hungry. The Horned Frogs begin the 2017 season unranked for only the second time in the last dozen years. The last time TCU began the season out of the rankings, the Horned Frogs finished 12-1 and No. 3 in the country in 2014. Put simply, TCU’s Gary Patterson is one of the nation’s top coaches and has bigger, faster, stronger athletes and more of them. And there’s this: Jackson State began last season with a 63-13 loss at UNLV in another money game. TCU is far better than UNLV.

Strike two: The Tigers get back to playing a team with a similar talent level in Week 2 when they travel to Memphis for the annual Southern Heritage Classic at the Liberty Bowl. But here’s the deal: Tennessee State has defeated Jackson State five straight times by an average of three touchdowns per game. The rivalry has been “classic” in name only here lately. Tennessee State has won 12 of the last 14 meetings.

Strike three: So then, in Week 3, Hughes takes his Tigers to Grambling, where they will face the G-Men who have won 18 straight SWAC games and the last two league crowns. Oddly, this will be Jackson State’s first visit to Grambling since 2012. Remember, Grambling forfeited its 2013 game to JSU, which was supposed to played in Jackson. As part of the penalty, the SWAC required Grambling to play the next three games in the series at Jackson State. Grambling won all three by an average of 19 points. The loaded G-Men are the overwhelming pick to win a third straight SWAC title.

How’s all that for starters? Yes, it’s brutal.

Hughes’ second Jackson State team could well be improved over last year’s 3-8 team, and we might not know it after the first three games.

Hughes believes he has beefed up his roster with 40 new faces (freshmen, red-shirted players, juco transfers and other transfers), who have never played a snap of four-year college football. It would be nice if those new guys could build some confidence early, but that likely won’t be the case. They will face by far the toughest part of the 2017 schedule early.

If you are looking for a spot the Tigers could break through in those first three games, I would suggest that Tennessee State is the team and Memphis is the place. Tennessee State returns 16 starters, including nine on defense, but returning Jackson State players should remember they easily could have won last year’s meeting.

Jackson State led Tennessee State 26-19 late in the third quarter, before two Tennessee State touchdowns in an eight-second span buoyed TSU to a 40-26 victory. The critical play was a pick-six touchdown that gave the Tennessee Tigers a 33-26 lead.

In fact, Jackson State lost several close games last season. Part of the process of every rebuilding program is learning how to win those close ones. Hughes knows that. But it’s exceedingly difficult to learn how to win with so many new players against a schedule that begins the way JSU’s begins in 2017.

Hughes, deservedly known as one of the best talent recruiters in Mississippi football history, is replenishing Jackson State’s depleted talent pool, but the key word for Tiger fans might be this one: patience.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.