Jacksonville State transitions to the FBS this year, joining Conference USA to see how it compares with other FBS programs when all the games are against this level — and not the FCS like their final season there in 2022. The Gamecocks have done some impressive things against FBS competition over the years, but can they do it weekly? That's the big question.
JACKSONVILLE STATE 2023 PREVIEW
THE CONF.: Conference USA
2022 RECORD: 9-2 at FCS level (no postseason)
CONF. FINISH: N/A. Played in FCS
HEAD COACH: Rich Rodriguez (2nd year at school - 9-2; 17th year overall - 172-121-2)
FIVE ALL-STAR CANDIDATES: Zion Webb, QB/Sr. (1,737 yards passing, 10 TDs; 13 rushing TDs); Sean Brown, TE/Jr. (331 yards receiving, 18 catches); Chris Hardie, DE/Jr. (10 TFLs, 40 tackles); Kobi Fuqua, DB/Jr. (55 tackles); Alen Karajic, PK/Jr. (13 FGs); Anwar Lewis, RB/Jr. (840 yards rushing, 8 TDs).
THE NEWCOMER: Quae Drake, LB/Jr. (Louisiana-Monroe transfer, 103 tackles, 12.5 TFLs in two years)
Rodriguez is an offensive guru, and it's unlikely anyone will debate that. He attracts talent and has shown the ability to employ his high-octane style of offense at Power Five programs like West Virginia, Michigan, and Arizona — regardless of what you think of how things finished up at Michigan and Arizona. Those programs had no problems moving the ball, but sometimes had problems stopping other teams.
At Jacksonville State, RichRod's first year was similar to that pattern. With 7th-year QB Zion Webb (yes, how often do we read/type THAT description) at the helm, with his experience and talent and ability to fly when he needs to? There's no question RichRod's offense will be in the 40 points-per-game realm. But is the defense improved enough for the FBS level to hold opponents to at least the 30s per game as it continues to build in his second year?
Last year, the Gamecocks lost to FCS SE Louisiana by 17 and FBS Tulsa by 37, but the program went 9-2 against an FCS schedule. There is a lot of talent back, and if the defense can shore up the linebacking corps, it will play better — but how does that translate to the FBS level, which is tougher? That's the big question here.
THE KEY GAME AND WHY
There are so many potential "key games", but the one that really jumps off the page is the one that welcomes the Gamecocks to the FBS level — UTEP at home in Week Zero on Aug. 26, just a few weeks away. Why? Because Western Kentucky and Liberty are tall orders at the top of Conference USA, and there are several schools that JSU should put away.
But games against teams like UTEP, New Mexico State, and Middle Tennessee? Those are the measuring stick games JSU will learn from. UTEP may be a bowl-caliber opponent and could be the earliest litmus test for whether JSU is in the upper half of this revamped league or will be forgiven for being new and be in the bottom half as it develops.
THE TOUGHEST GAME AND WHY
Aside from the South Carolina SEC road-trip (can you say: cha-ching, cha-ching? ), the more down-to-earth toughies obviously are potential Top 25 team Western Kentucky at home on Oct. 17, Liberty at home Oct. 10, and non-conference G5 foe and road trip opponent Coastal Carolina on Sept. 9.
Jacksonville State isn't eligible for a bowl game as it transitions to the FBS level here in 2023 in its first year, but if the games mentioned above are competitive? That's the potential for a winning season.
THE CHANCES OF MAKING CONF. TITLE GAME
None. And not because Jacksonville State sucks, it's because the Gamecocks (and Sam Houston) are new to C-USA and can't qualify for the C-USA title game or bowl games due to the NCAA transition rule from the FCS level to the FBS. But even if the Gamecocks could qualify for the C-USA title game, it likely wouldn't happen this year — though a bowl game may not have been out of the question. But again, none of that will happen.
Jacksonville State is one of the most logical FCS to FBS moves out there. The Gamecocks have beaten Ole Miss (2010), Florida State (2021), taken in-state Auburn to OT the year the Gamecocks also played North Dakota State in the FCS title game (in 2015 vs. Carson Wentz) ... should I continue? Sometimes JSU could make your head spin as an FCS program, but it always seemed it could scare an SEC or ACC team when they played them, even with many fewer scholarships.
The Gamecocks are a legit program with a legit head coach. If the big year doesn't happen in 2023, it will likely happen soon for JSU fans. Conference USA is rebuilding, and JSU could take advantage of that. We could see a .500+ season here, but nine wins like JSU's final 2022 record (9-2) in the FCS is not going to happen.
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