TUSKEGEE — There’s nothing like a title fight.
Sound out 12 bells over the historic campus at Tuskegee.
Tuskegee hosts Miles College today with a divisional championship on the line, and a trip to the SIAC Championship Game hanging in the balance.
“This is what you play for,” Tuskegee head coach Willie Slater said simply. “This is why you play, to play games like this.”
Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. between Tuskegee (5-4 overall, 4-1 SIAC) and the defending conference champions in Miles College (7-2, 4-1). Expect an overflowing of capacity on Tuskegee’s 95th homecoming. Tuskegee opened the season 1-4, but has won four straight after a midseason turnaround, and in a perfect-storm finish, will host the defending champs right where the Golden Tigers want them, at Abbott Memorial Alumni Stadium at the center of a wild homecoming atmosphere.
It’s a big stage. Saturday’s winner of the de facto division championship game will advance to play Savannah State next weekend for the conference championship.
Ready or not for the Golden Tigers, who are two years removed from this kind of environment, the big game is coming to their doorstep.
“I think Miles is the best team I’ve ever seen them with,” Slater said. “And they’re coming off of winning the conference last year. So they feel like they know how to win these games.
“I guess we’re the inexperienced ones right now.”
Tuskegee senior quarterback Ahmad Deramus fired for 197 yards and two touchdowns on 10-of-22 passing last Saturday in Tuskegee’s fourth consecutive win, as the Golden Tigers topped Edward Waters 27-26 in nonconference play.
He’s one of the team veterans who has seen this kind of stage, though they’re surrounded by plenty of newer players who haven’t. Tuskegee won the conference championship in 2017 but fell out of contention last season with three league losses.
Slater reached for his heart Thursday, speaking in Logan Hall on campus, overlooking the then-calm Alumni Stadium.
“I was saying the other day, ‘If I could just take my heart, take it out, and just put it in that guy,’” Slater said, pantomiming with his hands. He’s coached Tuskegee to seven conference championships in his long career. Now he’s tasked with imparting his wisdom from those experiences to his younger players.
“You know? Just put my heart in him. Let him beat my blood a little while,” he shook his head. “But that’s not reality. You have to somehow get it in there. We have to brainwash it in there some kind of way.”
His players are focused, though, he said. They know they have to be.
Miles College beat Tuskegee 31-27 last year, on the Bears’ way to winning the SIAC Championship Game 50-23 over Albany State.
The Golden Tigers know those Bears well, and vice versa. Slater could rattle the connections on and on. Miles head coach Reginald Ruffin was a defensive coordinator at Tuskegee under Slater for five years. The Bears have a receivers coach that coached at Tuskegee, Slater said, and a quarterbacks coach and a linebackers coach who both played for the Golden Tigers. “I can just go on,” Slater said. “It’s more.”
But Saturday’s game is about the present — about ‘win or go home,’ and about an opportunity to etch a name into the championship records.
“We’re in the situation we hoped we could be in at this point,” Slater said. “We have a great game coming this weekend — a very good team. I think, just from looking at film, and observing the other teams that we’ve played, they’re one of the best ones that I’ve seen on film.
“Very disciplined, plays hard, has a great scheme on both sides of the ball — so we have a tremendous challenge ahead of us.”
It’s a tremendous challenge — and a tremendous opportunity.