There was every reason to believe Jackson State football would regress badly after Deion Sanders took his glitzy show — and many of the Tigers’ best players — off to perform in the Rocky Mountains at Colorado.

Not only did Neon Deion depart, but he took much of his coaching staff and nine of his best players with him, including his son Sheddeur Sanders, already established as one of the greatest quarterbacks in SWAC football history. What’s more, 1,100-yard rusher Sy’veon Wilkerson, national No. 1 recruit Travis Hunter and safety Shiloh Sanders headed west to high country. Several other JSU Tigers scattered elsewhere.

Rick Cleveland

To Jackson State alumnus T.C. Taylor fell the daunting task of trying to remake the Tigers’ football roster. Given the mass exodus, the odds were far from favorable.

But guess what? The 2023 T.C. Tigers debuted Saturday night and frankly looked every bit as sharp as any of Sanders’ JSU teams, who won 23 of 26 games over the past two seasons. Taylor’s Tigers slobber-knocked South Carolina State 37-7 in, of all places, Atlanta. The score doesn’t begin to tell you how thoroughly JSU dominated. South Carolina State did not score until the waning seconds. Taylor was nothing if not benevolent. He could have made it 50-0 or worse, had he so decided.

Playing before a national TV audience on ABC, the Tigers were as efficient as they were impressive. They were fundamentally sound and they were exceedingly fast in accomplishing something Deion never did at Jackson State. And that’s to win in Atlanta. Sanders’ Tigers lost two straight times in Atlanta’s Celebration Bowl, first to South Carolina State 31-10 and then to North Carolina Central in overtime last year.

Making Jackson State’s trouncing of South Carolina State all the more impressive is that SC State defeated North Carolina Central 26-24 last season before NC Central defeated Jackson State in the bowl game.

Clearly, Taylor and his staff have done a masterful job of reconstructing the JSU roster. Start with quarterback where nobody in their right mind would expect anyone to come in and replicate Sheddeur Sanders’ brilliance. Enter Jason Brown, a transfer from Virginia Tech, who threw for 367 yards and three touchdowns without throwing an interception. Brown completed 26 of 33 throws. His decision-making was as excellent as his passing accuracy. Brown played sparingly at Virginia Tech last season, but you should know he quarterbacked South Carolina to victories over Florida and Auburn two seasons ago before losing the job.

Running back Irv Mulligan, a Wofford transfer, displayed remarkable balance and quickness in rushing for more than eight yards per carry and 109 yards and a touchdown. Spectacularly talented Travis Hunter may be gone, but Brown has several passing targets from whom to choose. He spread his 26 completions around to eight different receivers.

Defensively, the Tigers just dominated, allowing only 201 yards with much of that coming after Taylor began freely substituting.

Nevertheless, the star of the first-game JSU show has to be T.C. Taylor, the Magnolia native who played high school ball for the venerable Greg Wall at South Pike before becoming one of Jackson State’s football greats. At first glance, Taylor appears the antithesis of Deion Sanders. Sanders is flashy; Taylor is far more subdued and even-keeled. At JSU, Sanders was always the center of attention and clearly liked it that way. Taylor prefers to deflect attention to players and assistants.  Sanders was a JSU outsider; Taylor is as Jackson State as they come. When T.C. sings the words “Thee, I love” in the lovely Jackson State alma mater, he means it.

I first saw Taylor play quarterback — and play it well — for Wall at South Pike. He initially played quarterback at JSU, before the great Robert Kent won the job. So Taylor moved to wide receiver and as a senior caught 84 passes for 11 touchdowns. 

Taylor may want to deflect attention, but JSU fans were having none of that in Atlanta Saturday night. They were chanting his name as the final seconds ticked down. 

“This is just the beginning, but I am really excited about where this team in headed,” Taylor said afterward. “I’m not going to let us get complacent. The sky is the limit for this team.

“Yes, we had a lot of turnover on the roster, but we’ve got a lot of good players. These dudes really get along and they enjoy playing the game.”

One game — even a lopsided victory over a respected opponent on national TV — is no guarantee of future success. But, boy, it really was impressive.

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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.