By Mike Goodson
Jacksonville State is a team heading into the 2017 football season with high expectations.
If the Gamecocks get past three strong stumbling blocks in their first three games, JSU must then face a grueling nine-game OVC schedule.
JSU opens with longtime foe Chattanooga, then travels to Atlanta to meet Georgia Tech and then returns home to play Liberty University. This is not an easy order to fill and would be considered a nightmare by most coaches.
Jacksonville State is looking for a fourth consecutive Ohio Valley Conference title, one that would tie the conference record set by Eastern Kentucky in the mid 1980s.
Even more impressive is Jacksonville State’s 24 straight conference victories, just two shy of the OVC record set by Ea-stern Kentucky between 1992-95.
“We don’t really talk about it,” head coach John Grass on Wednesday during the team’s 2017 Media Day. “Hopefully, the streak stays intact because that’s what our goal is. We want to win the conference. One definite way to win your conference is to win every conference game.”
The Gamecocks are favored to wind up on top of the OVC once again, receiving 16 of 18 possible first-place votes in a poll of league head coaches and sports information directors. UT-Martin got the other two first-place votes as the pick to finish second, followed by Tennessee State, Ea-stern Illinois and Eastern Kentucky.
The Gamecocks ran through the OVC last year, beating seven opponents by an average of 20 points. Only one team, Southeast Missouri, came within a touchdown of the Gamecocks. Jacksonville State last year became the first team in OVC history to go unbeaten in league play for three straight seasons.
The Gamecocks’ lone loss of the regular season came in Baton Rouge to LSU (34-13).
Jacksonville State loses multiple threat quarterback Eli Jenkins, who accounted for 3,234 yards and 24 touchdowns for last year’s 10-2 squad. His heir apparent is junior Bryant Horn, a walk-on who was attending school on an academic scholarship. Horn started out on defense and played on all special teams. He moved to backup quarterback last season.
The Gamecocks will be deep at running back and also have a strong corps of receivers. Roc Thomas is coming back heal-thy after having a good spring and will be one of the top backs in the OVC. Krenwick Sanders is back after an outstanding 2016-2017 season. Sanders scored the lone JSU touchdown against LSU.
The Gamecocks return nine starters from a defense that ranked fourth nationally in total defense last season. The OVC’s preseason defensive player of the year is defensive end Darius Jackson, who already holds the school record for sacks (20.5) and tackles for loss (40).
“I know what it takes to get everybody on the defensive side of the ball pumped up,” Jackson said. “They call me the “Hype Beast,” but I like to make sure my team is having fun. If we are having fun, I’m pretty sure we’re going to be winning.”
Rashad Green was also granted another year of eligibility and will return on defense.
Grass is looking to the season opener with high hopes.
“We can’t do anything about yesterday or tomorrow. We just need to stay focused and take it one game at a time.”
Grass will not have to wait long to see the results of his team’s efforts, as the season kicks off on August 26 in The Guardian Kick-Off Classic against the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in Montgomery’s Cramton Bowl.