Moments earlier, the first-year Jacksonville State football coach learned his team was part of the FCS playoffs, providing a soft landing to a bumpy, two-month ride on the postseason bubble.
The 20th-ranked Gamecocks (9-3) will entertain No. 18 Samford (8-4) at 7 p.m. Saturday in JSU Stadium. The winner will travel to play No. 6-seeded McNeese State (10-2) at 6 p.m. Dec. 7.
“It’s great to be able to be happy, to be able to truly say without reservations how happy you are and how excited you are and how proud you are of a group of coaches and players. Now, we can really say this is an accomplishment,” Clark said. “To be our first year, not many seniors, no quarterback, defense had to get better, and to be in the playoffs. We can brag for a minute. I want to brag on them.
“To get to this step in our first year is huge. It really is. To work this hard and to get ... vindication I guess is the word. That’s one of the things that’s neat in coaching, when you can tell your players if you do X and Y and Z this is what can happen for you. And it wasn’t all perfect, but we did a lot of good things and to get in is a testament to the work they’ve put in.”
It will be JSU’s fourth Division I playoff appearance and second in the last four years. It’s the second-straight time they have been selected to host their opening game. They have never won one, losing to Western Kentucky in 2003, Furman in 2004 and Wofford in 2010.
The Gamecocks are one of a record three Ohio Valley Conference teams in the expanded, 24-team field. The league hasn’t won a playoff game since 2000 (19 games) and is 24-48 all-time in the Division I-AA/FCS playoffs.
It’s that history in part that had Clark uncertain of the Gamecocks’ chances to get in even as he entertained recruits Saturday night. The players even said after Saturday’s 42-34 win over Southeast Missouri they were prepared for either eventuality.
But JSU athletics director Warren Koegel predicted they would be ranked higher than several automatic qualifiers when the bracket was announced. He was proven right when OVC reps Eastern Illinois (No. 1), the Gamecocks (No. 12) and Tennessee State (No. 15) all were among the top 15 in the Simple Ratings System, one of the tools used by the selection committee. Samford was No. 25.
Five AQs — Bethune-Cookman, Sacred Heart, Lafayette (5-6), Butler and Furman — all were ranked below the Gamecocks.
“I’m very excited. I think everybody’s excited,” said quarterback Eli Jenkins, who didn’t watch the selection show and was informed of the Gamecocks’ selection in a call from offensive coordinator John Grass. “It’s all we’ve been talking about from the beginning of the spring. We all broke it down on ‘national championship,’ so this is another step to getting there.”
The 7 p.m. kickoff is unusual for JSU at this time of year. School officials desired a home game, but wanted to avoid conflicts with the Iron Bowl at all costs. JSU officials declined to disclose particulars of their bid, citing NCAA preferences.
Despite the obvious logistical challenges of the day — campus closed, Thanksgiving weekend, the Iron Bowl, the aftermath of the Iron Bowl — Koegel is hopeful of a good crowd. The teams, separated by only 80 miles, haven’t played since 2007 when Samford left the OVC. The Gamecocks won the last eight meetings to take the overall lead in the series 22-21-2.
The Gamecocks listed the attendance for their last home playoff game in 2010 — played at 11 a.m. ahead of the SEC Championship Game between Auburn and South Carolina — at 11,817. It was one of the highest drawing games of the round.
“For us, it was about knowing we could do a good job of hosting a game and having a great atmosphere to play college football and the highest level, which is playoff football,” Koegel said. “This is a great in-state rivalry. I’d like to maybe play them during the regular season some.
“I think this will be a great matchup for both schools. ... It should be a fun night. It’s what playoff football should be about. We want to extend an invitation to everybody to come out ... because this will be a big, big moment for this football program and for our university.”
Samford will be making its first playoff appearance since 1992. The Southern Conference co-champions enter the game on an emotional two-game winning streak, beating Chattanooga in overtime and Elon on a touchdown with seven seconds to play.
The Bulldogs rank 29th nationally in total offense and 10th in passing. Quarterback Andy Summerlin will test JSU’s top-10 passing defense with a game that has produced 3,559 yards and 25 touchdowns. Versatile Fabian Truss is ranked No. 1 in all-purpose yardage, averaging 200.45 yards a game. The senior running back has more than 1,000 yards rushing/receiving and 1,000 yards in returns.
“We got to see them against (common opponent) Georgia State and I was like, ‘Wow,’” Clark said. “I had seen them in the past and these suckers have gotten better. There’s a reason they’ve won.”
Interestingly, the game will carry an element of sibling rivalry. Jax State linebacker Kyle Pope is twin brother to Samford’s leading receiver Kesley Pope.
Sports Writer Al Muskewitz: 256-235-3577. On Twitter @almusky_star.