MAYES: Gamecocks must prove they belong on the national scene, in 2018 and beyond

 

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The JSU football team huddles during their 17-7 season-ending loss at the hands of Kennesaw State last December (Katy Nowak/JSU)

Daniel Mayes, Editor-in-Chief


By most estimations, 2017 was a great football season for Jacksonville State University.

A 10-2 finish, a fourth consecutive Ohio Valley Conference Championship, and an ongoing league-record and Division I leading 32 straight conference victories? Most schools in the country would accept that season without a second thought.

However, when you’ve had as much success as the Gamecocks have found on the field in recent years, the success of a program comes down to one factor: playoff performance. After the run to the National Championship game in 2015, two Gamecock seasons have ended on a sour note, with early exits for the higher-seeded JSU teams, on Burgess-Snow Field no less.

The two seasons saw the team fall apart in different ways, as 2016’s vaunted defense surrendered 520 yards and 40 points to eventual national runner up Youngstown State, while 2017’s squad, which was plagued by a somewhat inconsistent offense all season long, was able to muster only seven points as the Gamecocks fell to Kennesaw State.

The fact of the matter is; the Gamecocks have to turn those problems around if they hope to continue to establish themselves as a consistent power on the national scene. JSU’s been given the benefit of the doubt in the national rankings and playoff seedings, but that will begin to disappear as the Gamecocks’ reputation shifts to one of a “good regular season team in a bad conference.”

Because, recent improvement of Austin Peay aside, the OVC is just not the type of league that churns out battle-tested, playoff ready teams. Sure, JSU can probably cruise through the OVC undefeated again with the occasional squeaker like the 2017 UT Martin game or the 2016 SEMO contest, but I don’t know how much this helps the Gamecocks get prepared for playoff time.

This year, the Gamecocks add to their OVC schedule two non-conference tests that will hopefully provide that much-needed experience to get them ready to go come December.

JSU’s OVC slate is bookended by an opener against last year’s undefeated HBCU champions North Carolina A&T and a closing game in Atlanta against the very same squad that ended JSU’s playoff hopes last season, Kennesaw State.

Hopefully for the Gamecocks, these games will give them what last year’s schedule couldn’t. UTC and Liberty were counted on to provide that test for the Gamecocks in 2017, but those teams didn’t pan out as the powers they were billed to be.

With a new-look backfield on offense and some fresh faces on defense, the Gamecocks are thrown into the fire with that test against the Aggies, but, win or lose, the non-conference contest will be an important barometer for the Gamecocks heading into a vital season for JSU’s future.

Are Grass and Company ready to prove that the 2016 and 2017 finishes were blips on the radar for a budding national power? Or will 2015 prove the exception to the rule for a program that can dominate on a conference scale but can’t make noise when it comes to playoff time?

Either way, 2018 will certainly be a fork-in-the-road season in Jacksonville.

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