It’s becoming all too clear that Jacksonville State’s football program has stepped in a hole this season, the dreaded transition year.
It comes with the usual slings and arrows from reactionary fans. Just read Twitter reactions, and some fans suddenly doubt every word from a coach who has won more than 78 percent of his games and five Ohio Valley Conference titles.
John Grass got JSU to the FCS title game four years ago, farther than JSU had ever been in Division I. He deserves patience in a season where injuries and graduation have left the Gamecocks reliant on young offensive and defensive linemen and a walk-on kicker.
He’s also right about one consistent point that gets under the skin of some JSU followers … the Ohio Valley Conference has improved, and has JSU to thank for it.
It showed last season, when Southeast Missouri ended JSU’s 36-game conference winning streak. Both teams went on to win playoff games.
It shows in the standings this season. With three weeks left in the regular season, Tennessee-Martin, Austin Peay and SEMO each have one conference loss, and all have beaten JSU. Eastern Kentucky lurks with two league losses after falling to Austin Peay in overtime.
It’s the most wide-open race the OVC has seen in years, and it points to two truths.
One, the league has gotten better. Schools around the league have upgraded facilities, trying to close the gap with JSU Stadium, which opened in 2010. Coaches like SEMO’s Tom Matukewicz have acknowledged patterning their programs after JSU’s.
Two, while no OVC team appears primed to make a deep playoff run, the rest of the league can make it hurt when a less-than-vintage JSU team plays less than its best. That’s different from 2014-17, when JSU’s worst days could still look good on the scoreboard.
JSU entered this season with major question marks. Injuries worsened things on the offensive line and claimed no less than tight end Trae Barry, who was on pace for a special season.
Despite it all, JSU stands a kicker away from at least two fewer losses, and two fewer losses would have the Gamecocks still squarely in the OVC and playoff hunts.