Whatever your view of a typical FCS opponent might be, Jacksonville State probably isn’t it. The Gamecocks showed their mettle last year, taking Auburn to overtime and marching to the FCS championship game for the first time in program history.
In fact, I’ll come right out and say it: The most talented team nicknamed “Gamecocks” in college football this season isn’t South Carolina. It’s Jacksonville State.
To learn more about Jacksonville State, we turned to Anniston (Ala.) Star columnist Joe Medley, who covers the hometown team in addition to 12 years of experience on the Auburn beat.
Q: How much confidence does this program have right now after taking Auburn to overtime last year and going all the way to the FCS championship game for the first time ever? Are we unequivocally witnessing the high-water mark of Jacksonville State football history?
JM: Really since 2010 and the victory at Ole Miss, JSU has gone into these games without showing signs of being intimidated. They were competitive for a half at Arkansas in 2012 and took Auburn to overtime a year ago, so this is a team that believes it can play against FBS opponents. It’s led by a quarterback in Eli Jenkins who showed out in the Auburn game, prompting many to call him the “best quarterback in the state” the rest of last season. It’s been reported that Auburn wanted him to transfer, though he never expressed interest in doing so. You’re definitely seeing the high-water mark of JSU’s Division I-FCS era. JSU was a D-II national champion in 1992 and twice a runner-up but started the transition to D-I after the 1992 season, completing it before the 1995 season. JSU was a middling FCS program for many years, showing potential but not quite getting over the hump in terms of winning in the FCS playoffs. That changed with two playoff victories and a quarterfinal run in 2013. Add last year’s three playoff victories, and all five of JSU’s D-I-FCS playoff victories have come in the past three seasons. It’s also worth nothing that they haven’t lost an Ohio Valley Conference game since 2013.
Q: These FCS-FBS upsets are often in-state games. Last week Eastern Washington beat Washington State, Richmond beat Virginia, Northern Iowa beat Iowa State, in each case because surely those teams had players who knew they were capable of beating guys they played against in high school. The Auburn game last year had the same dynamic. Does the fact that this game does not fit that bill hurt the Gamecocks?
JM: Not at all. If anything, this JSU team relishes in these opportunities. Their victory at Ole Miss, obviously, was against an out-of-state team. There are players on the team from Louisiana, and wide receiver Kevin Spears transferred from LSU. Other SEC transfers, like running back Roc Thomas (Auburn), no doubt want to show out against SEC competition.
Q: Two years ago Vernon Adams went from Eastern Washington to Oregon. Last spring Carson Wentz was drafted No. 2 out of North Dakota State. Though his style is different, is Eli Jenkins in their weight class, and how much of a problem will he pose the Tigers?
JM: I saw Auburn play Saturday. If Eli was at Auburn right now, he’d be their starter. He brings a truly multi-dimensional game as an accurate and smart passer, runner who can take it to the ‘house’ and good decision maker. He truly was a steal when JSU signed him in 2012. I think a lot programs missed on him because his high school team lost a lot of seniors right before he became the starting quarterback, and he spent the next two years running for his life.
Q: Wisconsin created a template for beating LSU last week. Is it something the Gamecocks have the personnel to replicate, or will they have to find other ways to win? If so, what must they do?
JM: The template, as I see it, is slow down Leonard Fournette as much as possible and try to pressure Brandon Harris into mistakes. JSU has a lot of new starters on defense this year, but capable guys. I think it’s possible to load up against LSU’s run, and Darius Jackson (preseason OVC pick as DPOY) can bring pressure on Harris. JSU also has an All-OVC defensive back in Jaylen Hill and linebackers like Joel McCandless who can drop back in coverage and make interceptions. They question is how well JSU’s offense can stay on the field against a talented LSU defense. JSU has the playmakers at skill positions, but the key will be how well they block LSU’s front seven.
Q: For most FCS fan bases, I think this answer depends on the specific FBS opponent, but would Jacksonville State fans rather have the notoriety of being SEC killers with a win here or a national championship?
JM: Without a doubt, JSU fans would prefer a national title. They learned that the hard way in 2010, when JSU beat an SEC opponent (Ole Miss) but blew a lead and chance to win the OVC at Tennessee Tech. They got a home playoff game but lost, and the feeling coming away from that season was disappointment. The near miss at Auburn last year certainly awakened JSU’s fan base, more so than the Ole Miss game in 2010. The home portion of the schedule followed the Auburn game, and JSU averaged 20,598 fans in a stadium that expanded to 24,000 before the 2010 season. They had the second-highest average attendance in FCS last year and averaged more than 30 FBS teams, including 10 of 12 in the MAC. They had 22,000-plus for this year’s season opener against North Alabama, so the Auburn game had its effect. That said, the loss to North Dakota State in last year’s FCS final is what drives JSU appetites this year.
Q: With the recent success and potential Big 12 expansion looming, is Jacksonville State positioning itself to be a candidate to perhaps move up to the Sun Belt should that league need more teams after an inevitable AAC poaching? Or is there contentment being an FCS power?
JM: The answer has been mixed. A few years ago, JSU officials expressed a desire to look into a possible move up, with an eye toward positioning itself for an opportunity. The 2009-10 football stadium expansion and other facility upgrades, including a pending major improvement of the baseball stadium, were done partly with the idea of looking more attractive to an FBS league. That said, the current president, John M. Beehler, an accountant by trade, has publicly questioned JSU’s ability to afford such a move, which entails keeping pace in the facilities arms race. The school just saw a new-enrollment bump but has an enrollment of about 9,000, so its prospects of sustaining the new expense level beyond a move up would seem borderline.