(STATS) - So much of the focus surrounding Jacksonville State has been about replacing 3 1/2-year starting quarterback Eli Jenkins, the two-time Ohio Valley Conference offensive player of the year.
It's a difficult assignment, but one also tempered by another factor: The Gamecocks won't have to score on every possession because their defense will be outstanding this season.
"Their defense is a monster," said coach Kim Dameron of OVC rival Eastern Illinois. "Not only do they have a very good scheme, they're very well-coached. They're very athletic. They'll be as athletic, if not more so, than any team we play. We open up with two Missouri Valleys (Indiana State and Illinois State) and Northern Illinois, and I'll bet you that Jacksonville State's defense is more athletic than any of those three."
The sixth-ranked Gamecocks will put their defense on national display when they open the new season Saturday against No. 12 Chattanooga in the Guardian Credit Union FCS Kickoff at the Cramton Bowl in Montgomery, Alabama (6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Four other games involving seven FCS teams are part of the early opening weekend of college football.
The Chattanooga and Jacksonville State campuses are separated by about a two hours' drive. The non-conference rivals didn't meet last season, but their four games since 2012 have all be decided by three points or in overtime, with Jacksonville State winning each time.
Up-and-coming coach Tom Arth, the 2016 NCAA Division III Coach of the Year at John Carroll, is making his debut with Chattanooga. The Mocs offense returns quarterback Alejandro Bennifield, but lost more starters (six) than it returns (five) from a 9-4 squad, and that's not good news for facing the Jacksonville State defense.
Last season, the Gamecocks finished 10-2 and won a third straight OVC title as they ranked fourth in the FCS in fewest yards allowed per game (274.9), particularly stubborn against the run (89.3 ypg, fifth) and on third down (best in the land, allowing just 23.1 percent conversions). They were seventh in fewest points allowed per game (18.3).
Eight defensive starters return to Jacksonville State, including six of the 12 on the OVC preseason defense - end Darius Jackson, nose tackle Randy Robinson, linebackers Joel McCandless and Siran Neal, cornerback Reggie Hall and safety Reggie Hall. Jackson was the OVC's defensive player of the year and Bridges the freshman of the year last season.
Jacksonville State coach John Grass says his offense can win differently with a new quarterback, Bryant Horn. The junior is asked to be productive and manage the game, not necessarily be dynamic like Jenkins, whose 11,448 yards of total offense set a school record.
"(Horn) has done really good so far and he is one that will not show a lot of emotion," Grass said. "He is cool, calm and collective and nothing seems to bother him."
Earlier Saturday, Texas Southern and Florida A&M will square off in the inaugural Jake Gaither Classic as the first Division I game of the season (noon, ESPNU), while Portland State will take the FCS' first shot at an FBS program, traveling to BYU (3 p.m., ESPN) for a first-ever meeting. Also, No. 23 Cal Poly will host Colgate for the first time (7 p.m., ESPNU).
The weekend action concludes Sunday with No. 7 Richmond and No. 3 Sam Houston State meeting in Texas (7 p.m., ESPNU). Their first meeting is the only Division I game of the day.