With all due respect, the mother of Gamecocks linebacker Kyle Pope has another name for it.
“It’s the Pope Bowl,” Risa Pope said proudly.
Having sons playing on opposite sides of the first-round game — twins, in fact, not separated at birth but by matriculation —can the family really call it anything else?
When the two brothers left Syacauga for separate college careers four years ago, they didn’t expect to see each other again in the fall until Thanksgiving dinner. Now, thanks to the playoff selection committee, the fight over that last crescent roll may get a bit ugly.
That’s because two days later, Kyle will be playing defense and special teams for No. 20 JSU (9-3), wihle Kelsey will be a wide receiver and kick returner for 18th-ranked Samford (8-4).
“I was wondering if I’d ever get to play him,” Kyle said. “It was always something we hoped would happen, but playing in different conferences and against completely different teams never really thought it would.”
The twins have always been competitive, whether it was coming into the world or playing sports or video games. Kyle says proudly he “beat” his brother into the game of life by three minutes, but Kelsey has been playing college football longer. And Kelsey may have entered the world heavier, Kyle now has an inch and 40 pounds on his younger brother.
That competitive bent even spilled over into their emotions about Saturday’s clash of the twin titans, the first meeting between the Gamecocks and Bulldogs since 2007, the last year Samford played in the OVC before bolting to the Southern Conference.
Kyle compared it to “playing against your hero in a game but the game has more stakes to it than just a regular game.” Kelsey said that line sounded familiar.
“He stole that from me,” Kelsey said. “I always tell him he’s my hero. He’s trying to get a competitive edge. I think he’s trying to get one up on me right now.”
Now, boys, fight nice.
Both were recruited by the same schools, but Kyle said they didn’t really talk about going to the same place. Personal preferences led to them making different choices.
Kelsey got on the field the minute he arrived at Samford and is now a senior. Kyle, a redshirt sophomore, took a year to focus on his academics — the season JSU last made the FCS playoffs — then was redshirted the first year he joined the football team.
“We had been together so long, we didn’t realize how big a deal it would be to be apart,” Kelsey said. “That has brought us closer within the last four years.”
And the roads came together Sunday morning during the selection show.
The brothers were blown away when they saw their teams landed in the bracket together. Kyle was on the phone with his mother when the selection was announced. Kelsey beeped in during the call and was buzzed in to a three-way. The brothers promised each other their teams would be ready.
“If I see him on the field there will definitely be some smack talk,” Kelsey said.
Knowing his brother is on JSU’s kick coverage team he promised to “make my way to the second level to get to him to see what he’s going to do.”
Kyle seems happy to oblige and will keep a keen eye out for his brother on the field.
“I might have to let that love slide just for a little bit for that play,” he said.
The ones you feel for are the relatives.
Risa Pope said about 40 members of the family so far have committed to going to the game regardless of the conditions. Kyle isn’t sure who they all would cheer for. He hinted they might show up in shirts that were red on side and blue on the other.
One of the uncles suggested the gorup root for the JSU defense and the Samford offense. Risa wasn’t buying; she was all in, both sides. To avoid any appearance of favoritism, Risa said the group planned to sit in the horseshoe under the scoreboard.
“I will be rooting for both of them,” she said. “This way I don’t have to decide. This way it’ll be a win-win situaton. I never thought I’d be in a situation like this. It’s like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I’m so excited. I will be rooting for both teams and the people around me will just have to understand.”
Of course, before their teams hit the field, there’s this little tradition called Thanksgiving dinner at the homestead.
Kyle expects the matchup “might come up” for discussion between courses and he’ll talk about it if it does, but both brothers are expecting a laid-back atmosphere that typifies their gatherings. After all, as Kelsey said, “this game only goes on for a weekend, we’ll be brothers forever.”
Still, mother will be watching closely.
“I predict them to be toe-to-toe, just going at it, talking smack at the table,” Risa said. “It should be interesting.”
Then she paused knowing it won’t really get out of hand.
“We raised them well enough,” she said, “that no matter the outcome, they’ll be good sports about it.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.