The Gamecocks pulled down the final spot in Lindy’s preseason FCS Top 25. Earlier this summer they were No. 13 — and the projected Ohio Valley Conference champion — in Athlon’s preseason FCS poll.
It’s the fourth year in a row coach Jack Crowe’s team has been ranked in somebody’s preseason poll, and more polls are coming before camp opens in August. The Ohio Valley Conference will announce its predicted order of finish at its annual media day in July.
The Gamecocks were ranked in one of the two major FCS polls a record 40 straight weeks before dropping back-to-back home games to Tennessee Tech and Eastern Kentucky late last year that ripped control of their post-season destiny out of their hands. Although they won their last two games on the road to finish 7-4 and earn a share of the conference title, they were left out of the FCS playoffs. They weren’t in either of the final Sports Network or FCS Coaches Top 25s.
“No. 1, for our program, it’s recognition and we certainly need that,” Crowe said Friday. “It represents some kind of standard that we’ve maintained because as we ended last year and going to the next year I think there are a lot of questions. At least being on the radar is important.”
But whether it’s 13, 25 or some other preseason position, there is another number that will have more influence on JSU’s climb up the polls this season — 19.6.
That’s the average age Crowe has calculated of the players on his roster, basically making it a team of sophomores about to face what the coach called “the toughest schedule in the history of this school and I think the history of the OVC.”
The Gamecocks open and close the regular season at SEC heavyweights Arkansas and Florida, respectively, play a resurgent Chattanooga team in their remaining non-conference game and then face an OVC gauntlet in which every team but one returns its starting quarterback.
Two of those OVC teams — Eastern Kentucky (No. 9) and Murray State (No. 18) — both rank higher than the Gamecocks in the Lindy’s poll.
“We’ve got our challenges set right out there in front of us both in the league and nationally,” Crowe said. “With a young team and the challenges of the year, yes, it’s good to be recognized — I’m glad we’re on the radar screen.”
The Gamecocks are especially young on defense, particularly on the back end, but they’re not completely devoid of veterans on the roster.
Senior running back Washaun Ealey is coming off a 1,000-yard all-conference season and should be on the Walter Payton Award watch list. Senior quarterback Marques Ivory returns after missing all of last season and two-sport starter Coty Blanchard has given assurances he’ll return to play football in the fall.
Blanchard took over the quarterback job after Ivory fractured his fibula in the season opener and those demands in addition to a full season of baseball took their toll on his play by the end of the academic year.
“We have a chance offensively to be able to hold our own and give our defense a chance to grow up,” Crowe said. “I do think there’s a really good football team somewhere on this campus, but … as far as saying what we are today, I could no more tell you that than I could in the spring. I just don’t know how we’re going to play early.
“Our early experience will have a lot to say about how it goes, but as long as we take the attitude we’re going to get better every time the ball is snapped in every game we play, we have a chance. There are some good players here.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.