RIP to the FCS Kickoff.
Week 0 used to be an amazing concept for the FCS. The only game to start the college football season, ESPN viewers saw fantastic matchups on home fields. It started in 2014 with Eastern Washington beating Sam Houston 56-35 on the red turf. The next year, Montana took down No. 1 North Dakota State 38-35 in front of a raucous Washington-Grizzly Stadium with Brent Musburger on the call.
In 2016, a national audience saw the Fargodome in electric form as NDSU defeated Charleston Southern 24-17 in overtime. That year, the FBS got involved with Week 0 when Cal and Hawaii played in Sydney, Australia.
The FCS Kickoff got a sponsor in 2017, moving the game from someone’s home-field with a guaranteed good crowd to a neutral site. The FCS Kickoff became the Guardian Credit Union FCS Kickoff Classic, and it was played in Montgomery, Alabama. The Week 0 FCS game saw decent matchups in front of OK crowds at the Cramton Bowl from 2017-2020 as more and more FBS teams began to play on Week 0 to rake in the TV money.
Now, the FCS Kickoff on Week 0 isn’t even a thing anymore. It’s called the Montgomery Kickoff this year and is played at the same stadium. It’s on Week 1. And it’s between an FCS and FBS opponent.
RIP to the FCS Kickoff, indeed.
But the good news is this new Montgomery Kickoff is a fantastic matchup that has the intrigue of the FCS nationally. Jacksonville State, a program that gets everyone buzzing on social media, faces UAB this Wednesday on ESPN.
JSU is ranked No. 10 in the Stats Perform preseason poll. While I think that ranking is too high (I ranked JSU No. 22) because the Gamecocks haven’t lived up to their high preseason rankings for the last five seasons, there’s no denying this team is loaded with talent.
JSU struggles with consistency. At their best, the Gamecocks are a dang good team. One week, they will beat a ranked opponent and look like legit title contenders. Then the following week, they beat a 1-3 team by seven points. JSU plays to its level of competition often, which is a good thing if we’re solely focused on this week’s game.
JSU played its best football against FBS opponents in 2020-21. The Gamecocks held a 21-7 first-half lead and a 24-21 third-quarter lead at Florida State last October before the Seminoles hit the gas and won 41-24. Twenty days later, JSU beat FIU 19-10.
The Gamecocks are 14.5-point underdogs against UAB, per BetMGM. Those are pretty respectable odds since the Blazers have won the C-USA title in 2018 and 2020. UAB’s strength will be its rushing offense. Stopping the run is what JSU’s defense excels at, ranking No. 10 in the FCS last season with 92.4 rushing yards allowed per game.
UAB’s offense wasn’t all too explosive in 2020, scoring an above-average 28.4 points per game. JSU’s strong defense will keep this game within striking distance. It will be up to the offense to execute at a high level, capitalize on opportunities (hitting an open receiver in stride, breaking shoestring tackles to bust a big run, etc.), and avoid turnovers.
Getting quarterback and NFL prospect Zerrick Cooper back from injury is big, although Zion Webb played well in the spring and will likely be used this season in specific packages. Cooper, a Clemson transfer, was fantastic in his debut season with JSU in 2018 but regressed some in 2019. His play is key in JSU’s success. If Cooper is on, the pieces are in place for the offense to be explosive. Tylan Grable and Cam Hill are great offensive linemen, Josh Samuel is solid at running back, and JSU is always athletic at wide receiver.
This game being on a neutral field makes it interesting. JSU has played at the Cramton Bowl twice in the Week 0 kickoff games, beating Chattanooga 27-13 in 2017 and losing 20-17 to North Carolina A&T in 2018. The 2018 game was Cooper’s debut for the Gamecocks. Now he returns for his first game back after a lower-leg injury suffered last fall.
Really, the only result that would surprise me is a JSU blowout win. I can see the Gamecocks playing their best game in years and getting a close win, then the narrative all week on social media is arguments on whether this team is good enough to reach the national title game. I can also see JSU having a clunker of a performance and losing by 24 points. But the most realistic scenario is a game where JSU never truly threatens to beat UAB but sticks around and keeps it interesting behind a strong defense and one or two explosive plays offensively or on special teams.
Prediction: UAB 27-17
Spring 2021: 53-25
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