Fans accustomed to seeing lopsided scores when SEC teams take on FCS (formerly Division 1-AA) schools might be disappointed this weekend when Auburn hosts Jacksonville St. in its home-opener.
Tigers coach Gus Malzahn said the Gamecocks, out of Ohio Valley Conference, is not an opponent his players can afford to overlook.
“This isn't your average I-AA team,” Malzahn said. “This is one of the best I-AA teams in college football… We're not going to take them lightly and they deserve that respect. I wouldn't be surprised is this group ends up winning the I-AA championship anyway.”
Jacksonville St. is coming off a 23-20 road win over No. 8 Chattanooga, and is currently ranked No. 5 overall in the STATS media poll with 24 first-place votes.
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Last year, the Gamecocks finished No. 2 overall in the polls with a 10-2 record (8-0 Ohio Valley Conference), and made the FCS quarterfinals. Their only other loss was to Michigan State.
Against SEC opponents, Jacksonville St. has had some recent success with a 49-48 double overtime win over Ole Miss in 2010.
In 2012, the Gamecocks kept within striking distance of No. 10 ranked Arkansas for two and a half quarters in a 49-24 loss.
The OVC has knocked off at least one FBS school in four of the last five seasons, and Malzahn believes the talent level at Jacksonville St. rivals any FCS school in the country.
“They are very talented, more talented than some Division I teams,” Malzahn said. “They've got some transfers that definitely can flat out play."
Jacksonville St.’s defensive line is made up entirely of former SEC players including former Tigers linemen Devaunte Sigler and Chris Landrum.
Sigler played in all 13 games as a true freshman at Auburn, and had 10 tackles with a sack. As a junior, the 6-foot-3, 290-pounder was the OVC Defensive Player of the Year.
Sigler and Landrum are joined on the defensive line by Alabama transfer LaMichael Fanning and Tennesee transfer Allan Carson.
The Gamecocks’ strength upfront helps explain offensive coordinator’s emphatic answer about if his team would be looking ahead to LSU this week during practice.
“I mean this — zero preparation for LSU,” Lashlee said. “That’s just not how we work.”
While Jacksonville State’s offense doesn’t have the same Division 1 pedigree as the defense, that hasn’t stopped the unit from putting up record setting numbers.
With coach John Grass running the offense, in 2013 as offensive coordinator and 2014 as head coach, JSU has put up more than 6,000 yards each season. Last year, the offense averaged a school-record 510.8 yards, and 285.3 rushing yards.
It’s starting quarterback Eli Jenkins is back along with key starters including wide receiver Josh Barge, running back Troymaine Pope and four starters on the offensive line.
“John Grass is an excellent coach,” Malzahn said. “His track record speaks for itself.”
Grass was equally as complimentary of Auburn on his weekly Ohio-Valley Conference call.
“They are a great football team,” Grass said. “They are ranked No. 6 for a reason, they are deserving of it. They will contend for a SEC Championship.”
Grass said he is trying to treat the matchup like a playoff game for his team.
“We aren’t going to play anybody better all year,” Grass said.