And the numbers surrounding the Jacksonville State football team after last week’s loss to Tennessee Tech are sending the senior safety a very specific message for the Gamecocks’ future.
“If we want to get in the playoffs, we have to win these last three games,” Horton said Monday. “Every game from this point on is like a championship game.
“I feel like our backs are up against the wall right now. We were expected to … go through this whole conference undefeated. As you can see that won’t happen. The mind set now is on finishing strong. As long as we do that, we’ll go forward.”
Yes and no. If the Gamecocks finish strong, they will advance their cause for a second straight FCS playoff bid, but there are no guarantees.
After last week’s loss threw them into a three-way tie for the OVC lead, the consensus No. 18 Gamecocks (5-3, 4-1) have to beat Eastern Kentucky Saturday in their seniors’ last regular-season home game to have a chance at the conference automatic bid and any shot at an at-large bid.
One current bracket projection has them playing a first-round home game against Illinois State as the only OVC team in the field, but that’s subject to change weekly. JSU athletics director Warren Koegel told The Star last week he planned on bidding to host all four rounds; bids are due back to the NCAA Nov. 11.
That bracket scenario assumes JSU wins the league, but a lot still can happen. The Gamecocks could win the league by winning out and Tennessee Tech losing to either Murray State or EKU in one of the next two weeks, but they have to beat the Colonels (5-3, 4-1) to make that a possibility.
A JSU loss Saturday would give the Gamecocks the short straw in any tiebreaker with EKU and/or Tech.
“We know what we’ve got to do,” senior running back Calvin Middleton said. “It’s going to be a dogfight from here on out and that’s the kind of football we like. It’s nothing we can’t handle.”
The Gamecocks still would be considered for an at-large bid at 7-4 with seven Division I wins, but coach Jack Crowe “wouldn’t feel too good” about their chances to get in as a four-loss team.
“That would be a gift; it wouldn’t be an expectation,” he said. “There probably will be a 7-4 or two in it — but they’ll probably be from the Colonial. I don’t think we get credit. We didn’t get in 8-3 one time.”
That would have been 2008, when the Gamecocks were aced out for the last spot in a then-16-team bracket by 8-4 Maine — of the Colonial Athletic Association.
As for the Gamecocks’ chances of getting in as a second OVC team in a first-place tie with an autobid-holding Tech, Crowe said it would be “pretty reasonable that’d be the case.”
“So we’re down to win three and do it or lose one and just be wishing and hoping,” he said. “We’re a football team right now that knows it’s got it all on the line.”
EKU won’t be easy to dispatch. The Colonels are back to playing the run-oriented power-I offense they’ve waited all year to get into and are flourishing in it.
This isn’t the same injury-addled, shotgun offense that came within two minutes of upsetting Kansas State earlier this year. The Colonels made the switch after a loss to Austin Peay and haven’t been beaten since.
They’re averaging 445 total yards in their four-game winning streak with Matt Denham, the OVC’s leading rusher, averaging 200 yards on the ground himself. Denham, a junior, had 373 career rushing yards entering the streak.
“They may be, man-for-man and everywhere on the field, the most talented team in this league,” Crowe said. “They’re a considerably different team than they’ve been; it looks to me they’ve gone back to their roots
“When you measure and look at them, (they’ve) got all the measurements of a championship-caliber football team, which they are a championship-caliber football program. I had to remind our players that here lately you hear about Appalachian State with the playoffs and sort of national dominance, but Appalachian State still hasn’t caught up to where EKU has been from a win and get in the playoffs and win national championships (standpoint).”
And that’s exactly what the Gamecocks will be trying to get into position for this week.
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.