JP Wood, Sports Writer
For the past few years now, the discussion about Jacksonville State moving up to the FBS level has grown a little louder. The general idea is that JSU would move to the Sun Belt, bringing back the old Troy rivalry, starting new ones with schools like South Alabama and Georgia Southern, and profit off the increased revenue and recruiting bump of competing in an FBS conference. With the success of recent FCS transplants Georgia Southern and Appalachian State in the Sunbelt, this discussion is likely to gain even more steam.
There is a discussion to be had about JSU aligning themselves with a new conference; however, the Sun Belt is not the answer. Not yet, at least.
Instead, look to the Southern Conference. The Southern Conference currently houses Wofford, The Citadel, Mercer, UNC-Greensboro, East Tennessee State, Furman, West Carolina, Virginia Military Institute, and traditional JSU rivals Samford and UT Chatanooga.
Geographically, the SoCon makes so much more sense than the Ohio Valley currently does. In the OVC, road matchups in any sport are essentially impossible to attend for most students. The remainder of the conference schools are all located much closer to each other than to Jacksonville. Our closest OVC neighbors are Tennessee State, a three-and-a-half hour drive from JSU’s campus. Furthest away is Eastern Illinois, which is an eight-and-a-half hour drive. The average distance from JSU to another OVC school is over a five hours. In comparison, the average distance from JSU to a SoCon school is around four. In the case of three of those schools, the total drive comes in under three hours—compared to zero such drives in the OVC. The closer schools would allow students to go on the road with the teams, and represent our school like it deserves to be.
Additionally, the entire atmosphere of all sporting events, especially football, would be far elevated. As it is now, most of our conference football games are walks in the park. We have a big, beautiful 24,000 seat stadium, but in the 2017 regular season only held an average attendance of 18,583. Conference games had an average attendance of just 17,243. By halftime of most games this year, the vast majority of the student section typically has filed out, because in all but one case against Austin-Peay, the game was already decided. Not to mention, the large amount of road fans who come dressed as empty seats, because of the long drive for most of them to make to Jacksonville just to watch their team get waxed. In the SoCon, football games would be much more competitive- drawing larger crowds, both home and away, and bolstering an already amazing atmosphere inside Burgess-Snow across four quarters instead of just two. Games such as Chattanooga and Samford would boast near-capacity attendance numbers year in, year out.
How well would Jacksonville State fit in to the conference? By enrollment, JSU is currently the 8th largest member of the OVC. In the SoCon, JSU would become the 6th largest. By facility size, JSU holds and would retain the largest football stadium in the conference. Pete Mathews Coliseum would be about average in the SoCon, whereas it is one of the smaller arenas in the OVC. Rudy Abbott Field would be the second largest baseball venue, only 200 seats behind The Citadel. In softball, University Field would also rank among the largest in the conference. The only facility that wouldn’t match up to the Southern Conference would be in soccer.
With a move to the SoCon, the entire Athletic Department is bound to benefit. The SoCon is one of the most competitive conferences in the FCS. In other sports, teams would benefit from shorter road trips, as well as all that comes from playing in an arguably more prestigious conference. Obviously, all sports must be considered when it comes to conference alignment. However, JSU is a football school, and the OVC is not a football conference. The overall competitiveness in sports like basketball, baseball and volleyball would change very little. In the case of men’s basketball, their 11-7 record and third place finish in 2017-2018 would be good enough for fourth in the SoCon.
The Southern Conference in recent years has also served as a springboard to the FBS level. Two current Group of Five powers in the FBS spent time in the SoCon before making the jump to the SunBelt. Georgia Southern and Appalachian State played in the Southern, where they combined for 6 national titles between 1990 and 2007, including 3 in a row for App State from 2005 to 2007. The departure of these programs led to the rise of current owners of the entire FCS subdivision, North Dakota State. If JSU wants to defeat NDSU, or other powers such as James Madison, it isn’t going to come as a member of the OVC. A battle hardened team that can run the gauntlet of the SoCon has a better shot in the playoffs than a team who sleepwalks through their conference schedule each year and then gets shell-shocked by a rough team in the playoffs. We just witnessed the negative side effects of such an easy conference schedule against SEMO. No one took that game seriously, and the team came out with very little energy. There would be very few reasons to sleepwalk if Jacksonville State played a more competitive conference schedule.
A JSU move to the SoCon may also prompt other schools in the region to make the jump as well. Schools like budding rival Kennesaw State and traditional rivals North Alabama would fit just as perfectly in the SoCon and provide even more meaningful matchups, as well as road game opportunities for students and fans alike. Sustained success in the Southern Conference could eventually lead to a jump to the Sun Belt or Conference USA, but that is all dependent on JSU’s performance in the SoCon.
All in all, JSU has grown stagnant in the OVC. It’s time for a change of scenery. Four straight conference football titles with zero national titles shows we have nothing left to prove in this conference; but that we have everything left to prove on the national stage.