You check each weekend and see a slew of FCS teams upsetting their bigger FBS brothers. It’s happened 11 times so far this year — eight in Week 1 — and once already from within Jacksonville State’s Ohio Valley Conference.
Next week, Clark and his Gamecocks hope to join them, playing a Georgia State team that has lost twice already to FCS schools. This week, though, they’ll be trying to avoid being one of the victims.
The Gamecocks (2-0) step out of class this week to take on Division II North Alabama. In another era, it was a hot rivalry. Today, it’s a trap.
“We told our guys when the season started who is to say what’s an upset?” Clark said Monday. “Who is to say this team is supposed to beat this team? We said that doesn’t really mean anything. It’s all about who goes out there and plays.
“You’re seeing FCS and FBS get a lot closer together. If you look at (North Alabama) on film — this is not coach talk — they’re going to look as good as anybody we’ll play in our conference. We know exactly what we’re dealing with. … Look at all the FCS teams beating FBS teams, so I’m sure they’re saying the same thing from Division II to FCS.”
It has happened at least eight times already this season. Division II Tuskegee (coached by former JSU offensive coordinator Willie Slater) and Delta State both took out teams from the SWAC.
Morehead State, Drake, Northern Colorado, Stetson, Wagner and Valparaiso also lost to non-Division Is.
The Gamecocks typically have had their way with the lower division opponents they’ve played since 1997, but not always, as this week’s opponent will attest.
The Lions are 6-5 all-time in games against FCS (or Division I-AA) teams since the division was created in 1978. The last time, in 2003, they came to Paul Snow Stadium and beat a Gamecocks team coming off an open date 28-16. They’ve also beaten Southwest Missouri (twice), Middle Tennessee (twice) and Austin Peay.
For UNA coach Bobby Wallace, Saturday’s game is more about the two schools that are playing in it rather than some cross-division David-and-Goliath matchup.
“Simply because we have so much history together,” he said. “Back in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, our people and our fans knew it was just a great rivalry. It was kind of like the Alabama-Auburn for us. That’s kind of gone away with them moving on up (to Division I). Hopefully there will come a day we can get it back.”
JSU running backs coach Jimmy Ogle is the only assistant in the program still around from that 2003 game and he remembers “it was not very fun” around the field house in the days immediately following the loss.
The Lions rolled up 452 yards of offense and outscored the Gamecocks 21-6 in the second half. Quarterback Will Hall completed 18 of 27 passes and threw for four touchdowns. Nine years later, Hall was a finalist for the JSU coaching job that ultimately went to Clark.
“I do remember how miserable it was after they beat us; it was rough,” Ogle said. “The score did not indicate how truly bad they beat us.”
Greg Stewart, the Gamecocks’ defensive coordinator at the time, wouldn’t let them forget it. He wore a T-shirt embossed with the game’s score under his coaching clothes the rest of the year. The Gamecocks went on to win the OVC championship and their first-ever trip to the Division I-AA playoffs.
First-year JSU receivers coach Cornelius Williams has intimate knowledge on the Lions, having coached their receivers and signaled their plays from the sideline last season. Former JSU defensive line coach Scott Long was famous for wearing a Northwestern State shirt around practice the week of that game, and although Williams has a lot of UNA gear packed away somewhere he doesn’t plan to “do any purple” this week.
“I would never do that,” he said. “I’m not at UNA anymore. I’m indebted to Jacksonville State. Coach Clark brought me here for a reason. That’s to get my job done, coach my guys up and that’s what I’m going to do.”
Williams remembers the meeting in which Wallace informed the coaching staff the Lions were going to play JSU this season. He finds it ironic now that a few months later he would be joining the other side.
“You never know where you’re going to end up,” he said.
As “neat” as he said it will be to play against the Lions because of the relationships he’s built with those players and coaches, he won’t approach the game any differently. His insight on the Lions will come in handy during the week’s meetings and several JSU defensive players have already begun picking his brain, but it won’t be the Gamecocks’ sole source of intelligence this week.
Wallace said the circumstance creates a “little bit of an issue” for the Lions (1-0), just as it did last week against Miles when they faced a former starting quarterback, but they’ve adjusted.
“We’re not that crazy not to change a little bit,” he said.
And given all the upsets that already have taken place across the country, the Gamecocks aren’t crazy to overlook anybody.
“We’re definitely not taking the game lightly at all,” Williams said. “I tell my guys each week the way college football is nowadays anybody can beat you on any given day; I don’t care who it is coming in here. You take the same approach each week like it’s the best team in the country, like you’re preparing for Alabama or somebody like that. You prepare like you’re playing against the best players. No relaxion around here.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.