Just because an opponent plays on a bigger level and in an FBS conference Jacksonville State would some day like to be, don’t get the impression it qualifies to have the upper hand when the teams play Saturday in the Georgia Dome.
First-year Georgia State coach Trent Miles doesn’t.
The Gamecocks and Panthers renew what former JSU coach Jack Crowe hoped would become a regional rivalry when the series began, but now is simply a $300,000 money game for JSU. The teams sport records going in opposite directions — JSU is 3-0, GSU 0-3 — so Miles wouldn’t consider the FCS Gamecocks an underdog this week in any sense of the word.
“They should be the favorite when they play us, if you want the truth,” Miles said Monday. “This time last year we were a 1-10 football team and right now we’re not much better.
“Yes, we’re in the Sun Belt, but just because you’ve joined the Sun Belt doesn’t mean you’re a Sun Belt level competitor yet. … I don’t think there’ll be any game we play this year that we’ll be favored in. We weren’t against Samford, we weren’t against UT Chattanooga, we definitely weren’t against West Virginia and there ain’t no way we’re gonna be against you guys.”
The prognosticators got all those games right. The Panthers lost to Samford 31-21, Chattanooga 42-12 and West Virginia 41-7. The first two losses were among 13 FCS wins over their bigger FBS brothers during the first three weeks of the season.
It doesn’t promise to get any easier for them, either. After Saturday, the Panthers play eight straight FBS opponents — top-ranked Alabama, where you know they won’t be favored, followed by seven Sun Belt foes.
“We’re not an FBS football team,” Miles said. “We’re in an FBS conference, but we’re not an FBS team.
“Just because we joined the Sun Belt, nobody sprinkled pixie dust on our guys and made them FBS players yet. That’s down the line when we really start to recruit those guys. We’re no different than … the lower tier of FCS. We just happen to be in the Sun Belt right now.”
JSU coach Bill Clark and back-up quarterback Kyle West both said they don’t pay attention to point spreads, over-unders or any other such diversions.
They do, however, accept Miles’ projection as a show of respect “to our program and our football team,” but the only numbers that matter are those on the scoreboard at the end of the day.
“Who says we’re the favorite and who says we’re not? That’s kind of what we said last week,” Clark said referring to his team’s matchup with Division II North Alabama, a game JSU won in double overtime. “We’ve been saying that about FCS football. The line between us and a lot of the FBS teams is not a huge differential. There is a little with 85 full scholarships, but I think that’s the way we want to feel.
“We want to feel like it’s just two teams playing each other. We don’t feel like we’re going in as underdogs. We hope that’s irrelevant for our guys. I do want them to play with confidence and feel good about what they’ve done up to this point yet at the same time not look at (Georgia State’s) record and look at the team you see. I think if they do they’ll have a lot of respect for them.”
What the Gamecocks have done to this point is leave some questions about their identity. They beat an FCS team with a big passing game and a defense that rose to the occasion, swamped a non-scholarship FCS team with an historic rushing night and got by a Division II team with defense and special teams play.
When Miles looks at them, he sees a “very good, talented FCS team with a lot of team speed ... that’s going to be in the battle for the OVC championship.”
And one that has never lost to Georgia State. The Gamecocks are 2-0 all-time against the Panthers, but neither game would be considered a blowout. The last time they played in the Georgia Dome – 2010, in the Panthers’ third game as a program and first against a Division I opponent – fifth-ranked JSU needed overtime and a sharp-eyed officials’ call to wave off a potential game-tying touchdown.
In 2011 at JSU Stadium, the Panthers got within 24-21 late in the third quarter before the Gamecocks pulled away for a 37-21 win. Georgia State has led only once in the short series, 7-3 in the first quarter of the first game.
The Panthers transition to FBS began last year when they played an FCS and Colonial Athletic Conference schedule. While this is their first year in the bigger division, they won’t be fully eligible for the Sun Belt title or bowl games until 2014.
Clark can relate to the “growing pains” the Panthers are experiencing on their journey upwards. He helped South Alabama build its program from the ground up to the Sun Belt before taking over at JSU in December.
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.