Jax State chasing FCS title after flirting with SEC upset
Taking a big-budget Southeastern Conference team into overtime, even in defeat, was a splashy first step in a season the Gamecocks hope ends with a national title. Two years removed from their second coaching change in as many years, Jacksonville State hasn't lost since that game with then-No. 6 Auburn and is the No. 1 seed entering the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
Quarterback Eli Jenkins can't help but think they let one slip away even with all the pats on the back from becoming the first FCS team to take a ranked FBS team into overtime.
''We fought to the end of the game,'' said Jenkins, who is 26-0 as a starter against non-FBS teams. ''We came up short but we showed the world that they play ball in Jacksonville. That's basically what we wanted to do and I think we accomplished that.''
They haven't missed a beat even with two quick coaching changes, hiring a pair of first-time college head men. Longtime high school coach and former South Alabama defensive coordinator Bill Clark led Jacksonville State to their first two FCS playoff victories in his lone season before heading to UAB.
Longtime high school coach John Grass, Clark's offensive coordinator, took over. His no-huddle, spread offense has set total yardage records for the Gamecocks three years running - twice topping 6,000 yards for a program that had never reached 5,000 - while winning back-to-back Ohio Valley Conference titles.
''We didn't miss a beat and went right ahead,'' said Grass, who notes that transition is ancient history for this team. ''Those first two years kind of laid the foundation for where we are now, and we're excited about that.''
Jenkins is the OVC offensive player of the year, while Grass (rhymes with boss) received top coaching honors. The Gamecocks, who had four of the five first-team all-conference offensive linemen, have had 18 and 17 players receive All-OVC honors the past two seasons.
The 2014 defensive player of the year, lineman Devaunte Sigler - an Auburn transfer - has missed much of the season with ankle and knee injuries. Grass says he's healthy now.
Jenkins said the Gamecocks felt they had something special brewing even before the season.
''From Day 1, we knew that we had the potential to be a national champion one day, and we worked hard to get to this point,'' he said. ''We don't expect anything less than a national championship.''
Jacksonville State's transformation really started off the field. JSU Stadium underwent a $47 million expansion completed before the 2010 season. The school fired coach Jack Crowe, formerly head man at Arkansas, despite three playoff trips and three OVC titles in 13 seasons.
The program's fortunes have improved under each of his successors.
The 27-20 loss to Auburn is just one of the indicators of that. Jacksonville State's athletic department budget is some $12.9 million, about $1 million less than the Tigers spent on their new scoreboard.
The Gamecocks, who have won their last nine games by an average of 26 points, made $525,000 for the game and came away with a whole lot more from that performance on national television.
''It was a great advertisement for our university,'' Grass said. ''I think it helped our school and our program and the OVC a lot in the way our guys went out and played football that day.''
Then they went back to picking on teams their own size.