BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Prairie View A&M did it last year. This season, it was Texas Southern's turn to rise from longtime cellar dweller to Southwestern Athletic Conference champion.
The Tigers earned their first SWAC title since 1968 on Saturday behind coach Johnnie Cole's swarming defense and backup quarterback Riko Smalls, holding off Alabama State 11-6 at Legion Field.
"I've been waiting on this job for over 20 years," said Cole, who played quarterback at Texas Southern in the mid-1980s. "I've been in the business for 24 (years) and I always wanted to come back to Texas Southern and get us to this championship."
For Texas Southern (9-3), the title came with an unexpected twist under center. Smalls started in place of Arvell Nelson, who was held out of the game because of concerns about his eligibility.
Texas Southern officials didn't address what prompted Nelson's absence but noted it was not an academic issue.
"We wanted to protect Texas Southern first and foremost," Cole said. "It's really just an insurance thing until the outcome comes."
With Smalls, who had thrown 17 passes and run six times this season, the Texas Southern offense found its footing on the ground.
The sophomore Virginia transfer ran 13 times for 97 yards and completed 9-of-15 passes for 86 yards. Smalls received help from tailback Marcus Wright, who carried 37 times for 132 yards.
"We wanted to run the football, and Riko is just as good a runner as Arvell is," Cole said. "We didn't throw the ball as much but he carried out the system and we were able to be successful.
Smalls wasn't asked to heave the ball downfield, but rather to complete short passes and escape pressure for positive yards.
"Just manage the game, not do anything spectacular, just work within the system," Smalls said of his mentality.
It didn't hurt that Texas Southern's defense had its best outing to date. The six points and 72 yards of offense allowed were season bests for a unit that came into the contest ranked second in the Football Championship Subdivision in total defense.
For Alabama State (7-5), quarterback Devin Dominguez struggled in the face of a Tigers front that recorded four sacks and nine tackles for loss. He completed 5-of-22 passes for 28 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
"They line up in your face and they challenge you," Dominguez said. "We expected that coming in and it took us a little bit to realize what we can do and how we can attack them. Once we figured it out, it was a little too late."
Texas Southern jumped out to a 6-0 lead in the first quarter, scoring on an 82-yard drive on its first possession. The Tigers added a safety and 28-yard field goal in the second quarter.
Alabama State never threatened in Tigers territory until the final quarter. The Hornets had first-and-goal at the Texas Southern 3-yard line midway through the fourth quarter but turned the ball over on downs.
A 49-yard punt return helped set up a 2-yard touchdown pass from Dominguez to T.C McWilliams with a minute and a half remaining, but Alabama State couldn't recover an onside kick.
The loss capped a turnaround season for Alabama State, which finished 4-7 in 2009.