It’s generally accepted that it takes a minimum of seven Division I victories for a team to be considered for an at-large bid to the FCS playoffs — and the Gamecocks’ clock is ticking.
If they lose to Chattanooga — a team they lost to last year and barely beat the year before — they’ll fall to 0-2 in their 11-game schedule. And they still have Florida to play and won’t be expected to win that game.
Their margin of error, then, narrows considerably through what is expected to be a highly competitive OVC. The Gamecocks were picked second in the league, but the gauntlet includes road games with Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee Tech — teams that have beaten them two years in a row — offensive juggernaut Murray State and UT Martin now a bigger threat since it has beaten FBS Memphis.
The OVC hasn’t had an undefeated champion since 2007 and the league was won with two losses two of the last three years, including last year’s three-way tie that left JSU the odd-man-out in the playoff selections.
As Gamecocks coach Jack Crowe is so fond of saying, tick, tick, tick.
“This could be a playoff factor no question about it,” Crowe said. “You win this game or you have to win this conference.
“I would agree this game could have a major effect on our ability to get in the playoffs. Just on the basis of (the aforementioned scenario) if you don’t win the conference — say you’re second — you’re not going to have the competitive wins.”
The Gamecocks opened the season Saturday with a 49-24 loss at No. 10 Arkansas in an respectable showing. Crowe believed they left better off than they arrived and remained in the Sports Network Top 25 Monday (No. 24). They play Florida in their last game of the season.
While playing up to a BCS league is commendable and lucrative, it doesn’t score you playoff consideration unless you win — as JSU did in 2010 at Ole Miss and ultimately received an at-large bid after stumbling down the stretch. It actually hurts by taking a date for a potential FCS victory.
“There’s got to be some value to playing two nationally ranked SEC teams,” Crowe said. “There’s got to be some kind of credit with it, but I don’t know if it really counts.”
Crowe said he won’t be using the must-win scenario in the preparations for this week’s game — “there are so many layers of urgency (within his team),” he said — but agreed there was merit to the scenario.
As far as the players seem concerned, the only issue is this game, this week.
“I’m just focusing on who we’re playing, and this week it’s Chattanooga,” sophomore center Max Holcombe said. “I really ain’t got time to think about the future; it’s right now and what we have to do this week. There ain’t much I can do speculating what’s going to happen down the road.”
The Mocs, who opened the season with a 34-13 loss at South Florida, return eight starters on each side of the ball from a team that beat the Gamecocks 38-17 last year in the final game in Chattanooga for the foreseeable future. The ending of the series is a “sensitive” subject with Crowe, who believes nearby teams “ought to be” playing each other in the interest of rivalry and program development.
That defense led the Southern Conference in four of the five major defensive categories and turnover margin. One of the openings they filled with nose Derrick Lott, a highly recruited transfer from Georgia who almost became a Gamecock.
The Gamecocks don’t expect to see the true picture of the Mocs’ offense until they arrive, forcing them to scout on the fly.
“UTC in some ways is a bigger challenge than Arkansas,” Crowe wrote on his twitter feed. “We gained some confidence in Fayetteville, but this game against UTC will define us.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.