The Gamecocks could be back home watching the SEC Championship Game on television or getting in some Christmas shopping, so playing No. 6 McNeese State in the second round of the FCS playoffs Saturday is exactly where they want to be.
Even if it does come on the tail end of Winter Storm Cleon that is expected to send game-time temperatures into the low 40s, it could be worse. The Gamecocks (10-3) could be playing at Eastern Washington or Montana, where wind chills Saturday could plunge into the minus-teens.
“Teams that win in the playoffs are teams that want to keep playing,” JSU coach Bill Clark said. “They like being around each other, they enjoy the process that goes into it.
“That’s what I hope our guys have done. One of the things we really want it to be is they enjoy being together and enjoy keep playing and hopefully we keep it going.”
If the Gamecocks win, they would play either at No. 3 Eastern Washington or South Dakota State at a site to be determined. It seems the deeper JSU goes into the playoffs, the colder it gets.
The JSU-McNeese winner will know its next opponent before kickoff, because the Eastern Washington game kicks off three hours earlier. In the event of a JSU-South Dakota State matchup, the site location won’t be determined until after the selection committee’s 9 p.m. conference call.
Given Saturday’s expected conditions, McNeese officials are hoping for a crowd of between 8,000 and 10,000. The Cowboys led the Southland Conference and were among the top 15 nationally in attendance this season.
The Gamecocks have played in uncomfortable conditions this year. The cold they had in Eastern Illinois three weeks ago — their last loss — was exacerbated by strong, gusty winds.
Last week, Jacksonville State extended a lengthy winning streak against its first playoff opponent and ended a long drought in postseason play along the way. The Cowboys (10-2) will be looking to do the same this week.
When the Gamecocks beat Samford last week, it extended their winning streak over the Bulldogs to nine games and it marked their first playoff win since winning the 1992 Division II national championship. They reveled in the historical significance of the event.
The Cowboys, who are 7-0 lifetime against the Gamecocks, haven’t won a playoff game since playing for the Division I-AA national title in 2002 and the four losses in that stretch were one-sided. They are 11-14 all-time in the FCS playoffs, 8-7 at home.
Just as Clark asked last week to discount history, McNeese coach Matt Viator said this week past playoff experiences don’t apply. Only two players — linebacker Hayden Dobbs and running back Javaris Murray — were on the active roster when the Cowboys played New Hampshire in their last playoff game in 2009.
“Each group is different, but we’ll have to see how this group adapts to it, but they’re excited about playing,” Viator said. “These guys did not go 0-3 in the playoffs. In past playoff failures, if you want to put it that way, I’ve tried to search and do some things, but this is different from what we’ve done in the past because we’ve never had a week off in between games.”
The game officials will be coming from the Big South Conference.