Reed’s Tennessee State football team is 7-0, one of four undefeated teams in the Football Championship Subdivision and the only one with seven victories over Division I scholarship teams.
The last Ohio Valley Conference team to go this deep into the season without a loss was Jacksonville State, which won eight in a row in 2010 and was on the verge of being the No. 1 team in the country before the run came to a crashing end after an open date.
It wasn’t easy for either team to get there — JSU then, TSU now — and Reed knows it won’t be easy to stay.
“Absolutely,” the Tigers’ third-year coach said Tuesday. “I think there’s more pressure on the coaching staff than the kids.
“Kids are resilient; they kind of take it with a grain of salt. They just go out and play. That’s our job to keep them fresh and keep their mind clear so they can play the game of football at a fast pace.
“You don’t want to clutter their mind with useless details, but we’ve got to take the facts — we are 7 -0 and we are playing with a lot of confidence right now. But we have to understand we have a heck of a schedule left to play starting with Jacksonville State.”
There may be confidence in their step, but there is no swagger — at least not yet.
The Tigers haven’t exactly been rolling through a murderer’s row. Their first three wins came against teams looking for their first victories of the season. Armed with that momentum, their next three wins came against one-loss teams with a combined record of 9-3 at the time of their games. Last week, they won at 2-3 Southeast Missouri, where they hadn’t won since 1999.
They were down 20-10 in the fourth quarter against Eastern Kentucky before rallying to score the winning touchdown with eight seconds to play. They were down 10-0 in the first quarter of an eventual 40-13 win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff and were down 7-0 and 14-9 to Austin Peay before winning 34-14.
“That’s kind of curious,” JSU freshman corner Junior Hough said. “You want to know how are they beating everybody. As we begin to watch film, we’ll begin to see how is that possible. We’ll see how good they really are, but we will never know until the game really starts.”
The last time the Gamecocks played an undefeated team this late in the season was 1995 when they lost to 7-0 Troy. The latest they played one at home before Saturday was 1997 when they lost to 3-0 McNeese in 1997.
Most of the undefeated teams they have played since 1995 have been opening-day opponents. Over the last 17 seasons, they are 1-3 against undefeated teams that have played three or more games.
JSU coach Jack Crowe calls playing an undefeated team “a real opportunity” for the Gamecocks to define themselves.
“If we can beat Tennessee State, you can call us a good football team — a really good football team,” he said, “because it will take a really good football team to beat them.”
Crowe called the team that comes into JSU Stadium Saturday “the best-playing Tennessee State team” the Gamecocks have faced.
In addition to their record, the Tigers lead the OVC in total and scoring defense, second in rushing and passing defense — with a unit that lists nine freshmen or sophomores among the starters. They also have the OVC’s leading rusher and fifth-leading passer.
“I knew we had some talent on defense, but youth is always a concern as a head coach and we’re extremely young over there,” Reed said. “The game starts to take a toll on you not so much physically now, but mentally when you’ve got young kids like that. We broke down mentally last week a lot and we’ve got to fix those things this week if we’re going to compete with this team.”
JSU sends the second-ranked rushing offense and third-ranked total offense in the OVC against them. The Gamecocks have had a 100-yard rusher in each of the last three games and four of the last five. Damarcus James and Washaun Ealey both rank among the top seven rushers in the league.
If they could avoid the turnovers, the Gamecocks (3-3, 2-2 OVC) might be undefeated in the league as well.
“It’s going to be some smash-mouth (football),” Reed said. “I turn on the tape and look at those guys … and they just keep coming. You never think they’re going to run out of running backs. We’ve got to play a physical, physical game. Hopefully, we can limp out of there with a ‘W’.”
The game is a big one for JSU. A loss would leave the Gamecocks with three OVC losses, put them three behind TSU in the loss column and, with three league games left, virtually eliminate them from the conference title race.
A win would at least give them hope, but winning the conference title is not the biggest point on their agenda at this point.
“Playing for a championship is part of who we are, what we do, how we think … but where we are right now with that is we’ve got to get back to mission more than goal,” Crowe explained. “The mission is the bigger statement what we’re out there to prove every day.
“The goal is to win the conference championship. The mission at Jacksonville State and the football program is to represent competitiveness, against anybody any time we are capable of playing winning football. I think if we stick to our mission, our goals will come back in time. I can’t say when, but right now we’re not talking about that goal of winning the conference championship, we’re talking about the mission of our football program.”
Sports Writer Al Muskewitz: 256-235-3577. On Twitter @JSUSports_Star.