Saturday’s fifth annual FCS Kickoff game is as much about who doesn’t win as it is who wins.
Despite being top-20 teams, North Carolina A&T and Jacksonville State carry chips on their shoulders, both feeling they have something to prove. Their nationally televised matchup in Montgomery, Alabama, is just the risky opportunity.
North Carolina A&T was the only FCS team to go unbeaten (12-0) last year, capping the perfection with a Celebration Bowl win. But there are always questions about how the MEAC champ would do in the FCS playoffs. The conference, which relinquished its automatic qualifying bid in 2015 to become bowl-bound, is on a 20-game playoff losing streak.
Opposite of a losing streak is Jacksonville State’s 32-game winning streak in the Ohio Valley Conference. However, what the Gamecocks do outside the conference is always under scrutiny. They were the national runner-up in 2015, but they’ve also lost in their first postseason game as the No. 3 seed in three of the last four years.
Sam Washington, formerly North Carolina A&T’s defensive coordinator, is making his debut as the Aggies’ head coach. Jacksonville State’s John Grass (43-8 in four seasons) has yet to lose to a non-FBS opponent in the regular season.
FCS Kickoff: No. 20 North Carolina A&T (0-0) vs. No. 8 Jacksonville State (0-0)
Kickoff: Saturday, Aug. 25 at 7 p.m. ET
Where: Cramton Bowl (Montgomery, Ala.)
Series: Jacksonville State leads 2-0
Three Things to Watch
1. Aggies’ O-line must let the "Big Three" fire
North Carolina A&T features a dominating offensive trio in quarterback and 2017 MEAC offensive player of the year Lamar Raynard (2,932 passing yards, 31 total TDs), running back Marquell Cartwright (1,190 rushing yards, 15 total TDs) and wide receiver Elijah Bell (64 receptions, 953 yards, 11 TDs). But right tackle Marcus Pettiford is the only returning starter on the line, so the four new starters have to execute against Jacksonville State’s always aggressive defensive line and let the “Big Three” go to work. The pressure starts in the middle with Gamecocks nose tackle Randy Robinson.
2. Gamecocks need offensive chemistry quickly
There’s been plenty of talk about what Jacksonville State’s skill position players can do, but now they have to prove it. The Gamecocks are replacing the OVC offensive player of the year in running back Roc Thomas as well as the first-team all-conference quarterback, Bryant Horn. Clemson transfer Zerrick Cooper and redshirt freshman Zion Webb could both see action behind center, with Cooper possessing an arm that Horn didn’t have. Tramel Terry backed up Thomas last year after transferring in from Georgia and is ready for the starting role. The Gamecocks also lost some leading receivers, but wideout Shaq Davidson and tight end Trae Barry are key returnees. Standing in their way is a North Carolina A&T defense that returns eight starters.
3. Turnovers and field position — what else?
Winning the turnover battle is a staple in any coach’s pregame news conference, and it leads to another one of their key points — field position. There was a glaring difference between the two teams in turnover margin last season, with North Carolina A&T ranking fourth nationally (a nifty plus-17) and Jacksonville State a pedestrian 71st (minus-1, including 12 interceptions in 262 attempts). If Aggies cornerback Mac McClain is streaking down the sideline with an interception — he had six last season with an incredible 274 yards in returns — that's a bad sign for the Gamecocks.
Saturday’s spotlight game could be one for the defenses. In last year’s national rankings, Jacksonville State ranked second in total defense, third in rushing defense and sixth in scoring defense, while North Carolina A&T was third in scoring defense, fourth in total defense and fifth in rushing defense.
"They are a playoff-caliber team and it will be like playing in a quarterfinal matchup," Grass said.
To win, Jacksonville State likely has to come out of its comfort zone (the run game), while the Aggies have to play up to the level of a top-10 staple (60 straight weeks) in what’s basically a road game. (The Cramton Bowl in Montgomery is hardly a “neutral” stadium for the Gamecocks, whose campus is less than three hours away).
Prediction: Jacksonville State 20, North Carolina A&T 16
— Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.
(Photo courtesy Ohio Valley Conference)