What it did provide, however, was an even stronger foundation for helping enhance the league’s — and maybe even Jacksonville State’s — national reputation in FCS football.
Eastern Kentucky and JSU were picked 1-2 by the league coaches and publicists. No surprise there.
In the 10 years JSU has been in the league, the Gamecocks and Colonels have been picked to win it four times each — clearly making them the league’s best draw.
“I’ve always thought how people pick for the season starts basically as a list of who they want to beat the most,” JSU coach Jack Crowe said Monday during the OVC Football Media Day where the poll results were announced. “I guess everybody wants to beat Eastern Kentucky this year.”
It’s been either them or JSU. This year’s poll marked the first time in the last four years they’ve been eligible for it, the Gamecocks were not picked the favorite.
Only seven points separated them this year, with EKU and its 17 returning starters drawing 12 first-place votes. JSU collected the other six.
In fact, the only three years JSU wasn’t picked first or second in the preseason poll was 2003 — its first year in the league — 2006 and 2009, when it wasn’t eligible because of its APR post-season ban. The Gamecocks figured to be among the top three teams if eligible and actually had the best record in the league that year.
The only two years JSU or EKU weren’t picked to win it since the Gamecocks joined the league were 2003 and 2007.
Nobody comes close to matching that record in that period of time. Eastern Illinois is a distant third when it comes to the 10-year aggregate predicted order of finish, and the Panthers were picked eighth this year.
“If there’s one thing our program really needs — you talk about branding our program, for our fans, for (the media) — it’s a great rivalry,” Crowe said. “When you get picked 1 and 2 as consistently as we are with Eastern Kentucky, what you’re basically saying is that’s the biggest rivalry in the league.
“I’m not in a position to be quoted as saying that, but that’s what you’re saying over time. This league needs rivalry; that’s what gets you national attention. The OVC has a brand problem, we all know that. Rivalries, that’s how you fix that.”
The series between the teams became a rivalry right from the start. EKU, the most storied program in the league, was JSU’s first-ever OVC opponent and the Gamecocks established themselves right away with a 49-14 thrashing of a team picked ahead of them in the preseason poll.
Over the next four years, the road team won the game. The last two years, EKU turned up the heat, knocking off JSU in 2010 when the Gamecocks had a chance to become the No. 1 team in the country and rallying from a 24-point fourth-quarter deficit last year that EKU coach Dean Hood calls “the most amazing college football game I’ve ever been a part of.”
The Colonels are the only OVC team with whom the Gamecocks have a losing series record (4-5).
“I think there’s a rivalry, I think our kids get fired up for Jacksonville State and I’m sure (JSU) gets fired up in return,” Hood said.
”I think our guys are cognizant. We have daily personal excellent … but at the same time our kids watch TV and kids look on the internet and they know (JSU) is picked 2 and they knew a couple years ago they were going to be No. 1 in the nation if we didn’t win. They know stuff like that.
“Does that get them juiced up, does it create a rivalry? I’m like coach Crowe, I think it does. You do need a rivalry. … I think things like (last year) are what makes thing a rivalry. Those guys are going to be blowing snot bubbles and hitting their head on the locker, talking about ‘Remember the Alamo.’ That’s what gets your rivalry thing going.”
It is easy for teams to not get caught up in the preseason poll. The team picked to win and actually did it hasn’t happened since 2002, and to some degree that’s a sore spot with Crowe.
“I’m frustrated with it,” he admitted. “We’ve been in the league nine years and four of those we either had the best record or as good a record as anybody else. I don’t think we underperformed, but I do look back over nine years and there’s some that are hard for me to accept we didn’t win the league.
“I think we lost games. Right there is the milestone we have yet to pass as a football program — being able to consistently play at the level we’re actually capable of playing.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.