JACKSONVILLE — It wasn’t the red football field or Eastern Washington’s black-and-red uniforms that resonated with Ben Endress. The Clay County alum never much liked Linville colors, anyway.
There was, however, something about Jacksonville State’s FCS quarterfinal game at Cheney, Wash., that struck a chord with Endress. Something just felt right about JSU having scored its first two Division I playoff victories to get there.
It was an old feeling for Endress, who played for a perennial contender in high school.
“It felt like home, being in the playoffs and deep in it,” the senior linebacker said. “So, let’s keep that going,”
There’s no need to worry about JSU handling the expectations created by their surprising 2013 run. The Gamecocks want more of it too badly.
That was the feeling around the Gamecocks’ media day Thursday, which also marked their day to report for preseason camp. Practice starts Friday.
A JSU program that seemed stuck in FCS’s right lane for years suddenly accelerated and passed, and the hype machine hasn’t let off the gas. Preseason polls have JSU ranked as highly No. 4, and all pickers have the Gamecocks winning the Ohio Valley Conference.
There will be no coming from nowhere, as JSU did as the OVC’s fourth pick a year ago, because JSU became somewhere. Even the OVC became somewhere.
The league hadn’t had an FCS playoff victory since Western Kentucky did it 2000, and the last current member to do it was Murray State in 1996. A guy named Houston Nutt was Murray’s coach then.
The OVC had lost 19 straight playoff games. JSU was 0-3 in the playoffs as a Division I school, all since joining the OVC.
That all changed a year ago. Now, all of FCSdom has reason to view the OVC and JSU differently. JSU has cause to view itself differently.
The Gamecocks have wanted to carry this ball too badly to fumble it.
“As close as we were, that just kind of lit a fire under all of us, I feel like,” Endress said. “We’re going to try to get back there.”
Meeting this year’s expectations would mean another breakthrough for JSU.
The Gamecocks’ best back-to-back seasons in FCS were 2003 and 2004, when they won a combined 17 games and OVC titles in their first two years in the league. That was a different time for the OVC, however, and JSU’s consecutive conference titles netted two playoff losses by a combined score of 94-14.
JSU won 17 games over 2009 and 2010 but didn’t get so much as an OVC title to show for it. APR sanctions left the Gamecocks ineligible in 2009, and the 2010 team blew a 24-7 lead in the fourth quarter at Tennessee Tech with an OVC title in sight.
But 2013 saw JSU win an FCS-era-best 11 games, finish third in the OVC and make its playoff run. This year brings expectations of a playoff run and conference title.
How JSU carries those expectations is a key storyline headed into this season. For now, it seems last year’s taste has left the Gamecocks handling expectations like seconds on the table.
“Last year, our guys didn’t know,” said first-year head coach John Grass, who was promoted from offensive coordinator. “They didn’t expect that. They didn’t see that as a reality. So, as the year went and we got in the playoffs and won those first two round games, it kind of threw some reality to that. We can do this.
“That carried into our offseason. … You see that they’re hungry to get back to where we were last year and give this 2014 team a chance to win a national championship.”
Sports Columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter @jmedley_star.