E.A. Sports Today

Going over?

With seven games left in the regular-season, Jax State can turn Middle Tennessee week into Beat Expectations Week.

Cover photo: Jax State’s Quae Drake celebrates during the Gamecocks’ victory at Sam Houston State on Thursday. (Photo by Brandon Phillips/Jax State)

JACKSONVILLE —The FOX Sports lead paragraph read like the dose of realism Jax State followers expected to read headed into the Gamecocks’ first football season in Football Bowl Subdivision and Conference USA.

Joe Medley, Editor

The sobering prediction read like bad news that maybe, every so slightly, came off as more hopeful that some might’ve expected.

“Bookmakers are anticipating the Jacksonville State Gamecocks to take a sizable step backward in 2023, as their over/under is 4.5 wins after they won nine games last season,” it read.

Five games into the season, the Gamecocks have .5 to go. 

It’s Oct. 2, and anyone who took the over looks smart. A month ago, you’d think they went bottoms up a few too many times at the Hard Edge Bar & Grill.

With Jax State (4-1) set to play at 1-4 Middle Tennessee State on Wednesday, it’s looking like Beat Expectations Week.

All seven regular-season games remaining on the schedule give Jax State that chance, but this week’s made-for-TV, church-night CUSA special in Murfreesboro comes first.

Before declaring the defeat of expectations as imminent, let’s have a word about Middle Tennessee’s record. The Blue Raiders lost to Alabama, Missouri, Colorado State and preseason CUSA favorite Western Kentucky. They lost games prognosticators and betters would’ve bet on them to lose.

The same prognosticators and betters expected Jax State to reach late November with four or five ish wins, so always bet responsibly.

The fact that Jax State got this close to rewarding overthinkers by Sept. 28 tells us a few things about the program’s positioning to make the move up when it did, and there’s plenty to say about what’s been accomplished since then.

Forgive the sketics of November of 2021, when Jax State announced the pending move up. While Jax State keeps inching closer to 10,000 enrollment, it’s never reached the threshold that prevailing wisdom holds as necessary to support Division I athletics.

Without “Power 5” conference TV money, student fees become more crucial. 

No less a Jax State observer than 41-year radio voice Mike Parris sees it differently. Ask him, and the program was better positioned for the FBS jump in football than the Division I jump in all sports.

Jax State’s so-far success story started with fully funding its sports to NCAA Division I scholarship limits. That happened by 2001, nine years after Jax State began the move up from Division II.

The 2009-10 stadium expansion and subsequent facilities upgrades gave Jax State brass something to show potential FBS conferences without lowering their gaze. Construction on the Loring and Debbie White Football Complex shows more progress at every home game. 

College football’s ongoing realignment convulsion left CUSA scrambling for teams, and Jax State’s long wait for a suitor ended. 

Suddenly, a proven-yet-available coach like Rich Rodriguez became reachable for Jax State. 

He added 50 new players between spring and August of 2022, and the roster has undergone more upgrades since then.

Jax State brass opted to add football scholarships starting in 2022, putting the Gamecocks over the Division I-FCS limit of 63. That made the 2022 team ineligible for the FCS playoffs despite a 9-2 record but better positioned the Gamecocks for 2023, the first season in FBS.

All of that matters for the team Jax State put on the field this season, but there’s something about this team that helped it to beat UTEP and Sam Houston State in the Gamecocks’ first two CUSA games.

Prognosticators and betters had UTEP as a 1.5-point favorite on the road. The Miners gained nearly 100 more yards, but Jax State picked off two passes to thwart their comeback.

Naturally, former FCS walk-on safety Jeremiah Harris made a game-saving interception in a 17-14 victory.

Jax State went to Sam Houston State as a seven-point favorite and covered, but only after rallying from a 21-7 deficit, tying the game with a touchdown and two-point conversion with 13 seconds left in regulation and winning 35-28 in overtime.

Sam Houston beat Jax State 42-7 two years ago, when both were FCS programs. Clearly, one program has come farther since then … much farther.

Jax State has progressed enough that Rodriguez finds himself transitioning from low external expectations to managing expectations. He works back from a future where Jax State has everything a good ‘Group of 5’ conference program needs in place.

“The infrastructure for being a good ‘Group of 5’ program is still getting established, I guess you’d say, so we’re a couple of years from where we need to be as a Group of 5,” he said. “Now, we’ve won a couple of games, and that’s all good. 

“I’m brutally honest with our guys, and I’m honest with our staff, and I’ll be honest with you guys. We’re still not at the Group of 5 level that we will be or need to be in the next couple of years.”  

However long it takes to get Jax State’s roster and facilities fully up to snuff, the Gamecocks stand ahead of schedule on the field. How much so will become more evident in games to come.

It’s a study in guile and guts, from the top offices to the locker room.

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