One final ASUN victory and the celebration will begin for the Jacksonville State football team. A championship banner will be raised. Championship rings and t-shirts will be ordered. Heck, there might even be a parade.
The ASUN record book will reflect something different. Conference officials announced before the season that Jacksonville State, a one-and-done member of the ASUN while transitioning into FBS, would not be eligible for the crown.
Rich Rodriguez’s first Jacksonville State team was allowed to play a full schedule in the six-team conference. They’ve won the first four heading into the regular season finale at Central Arkansas. One more win would mean that Jacksonville State beat every other conference team this season. That’s pretty much the definition of a conference champ, even if ASUN officials have a different opinion.
“Whether they recognize us or not, we knew coming into this season, with the talent we had and the schemes we have, we really had a chance,” said tight end Sean Brown. “Coach Rod has been saying all year, whether they think it or not, if we win out, we’re going to be conference champions. I think that really does give us extra motivation.”
On Saturday, the Gamecocks will play a Central Arkansas team which has its own motivation. The Bears can clinch the conference’s automatic bid for the FCS playoffs with a win. A Central Arkansas loss could possibly force a three-way tie for second place in the conference, provided that Eastern Kentucky beats Kennesaw State. If that happens, then a tiebreaker would be needed to determine the playoff representative from the league.
Jacksonville State’s situation is much clearer. Win, and it’s going to be a fun bus ride back home.
“It’s our last game, so we might as well empty the tanks, so to speak, and try to have our best week all season,” said Rodriguez, whose team will be co-champions at the worst. “There is a lot on the line, conference-wise. I’m not sure what the ASUN’s thoughts are, but my thoughts are we can win the conference outright and finish undefeated in the league. That’s a big deal. For the seniors, it’s their last game as … college players, for all our guys it’s going to be a long time until we play another game. It’s obviously very important.”
Jacksonville State has undoubtedly come a long way in their first season under Rodriguez. The Gamecocks are 8-2 with losses to FBS member Tulsa and a Southeastern Louisiana team that can win the Big Sky Conference with a victory over Nicholls State on Thursday.
Not bad for a team picked to finish fourth in the ASUN.
“I don’t want to say I was surprised,” Rodriguez said of being picked fourth in a six-team league. “We lost some good players, had a whole new staff, the other teams had a lot of guys coming back. I thought maybe just the tradition of the school, we’d at least be picked in the top half. We weren’t even in the top half, we made the top half possible. That was a little bit surprising. No matter where they pick you, I’d think if you’re a competitor, you want to win them all.”
The only one-score game for JSU during conference play was a 35-28 overtime win over Kennesaw State. The Gamecocks ran away from UNA late, winning 47-31, and dominated Austin Peay (40-16) and Eastern Kentucky (42-17).
Now, the Gamecocks, as a team, look to close out membership in FCS in style and continue preparations to move into Conference USA. For the seniors, though, the motivation is different.
“Seniors helped set a good tone, because those are the ones it’s toughest on, right,” Rodriguez said. “The seniors, they’re not going to have an opportunity to transition into (FBS) and compete for a Conference USA championship or for a bowl game. Their motivation, hopefully was to be as good as a team as they could, be as good of a player as they could and to win the ASUN. That’s kind of our approach.”
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