Football season is almost here and this year we are starting off right with an excellent match-up between the reigning HBCU National Champions, North Carolina A&T, and the four-time defending OVC Champions, Jacksonville State. Like last year’s kickoff match-up, where the Gamecocks beat Chattanooga 27-13, this year’s game will be played in Montgomery, Alabama at the Historic Cramton Bowl as well as feature on Saturday night ESPN prime time television.
#19 North Carolina A&T Aggies
2017 Record: 12-0
Players to Watch:
Lamar Reynard, SR. QB
Elijah Bell, SR. WR
Darryl Johnson, JR. DE
The Aggies are coming off an undefeated season that ended with a win over Grambling State for the Aggies’ second Celebration Bowl victory in the event’s short three-year history. The Aggies enter 2018 looking to repeat their success with new head coach, Sam Washington. Washington is no stranger to Aggie football as he has spent the past seven seasons serving as the Aggie’s defensive coordinator. After two HBCU Championships in three years the Aggies are looking to shrug off the notion that the MEAC’s reputation as a weaker league affects their legitimacy as an elite FCS program.
The Aggies have play makers on both sides of the ball and on offense feature one of the top offensive trios in the FCS with quarterback Reynard, wide receiver Bell, and running back Cartwright. Despite having a talented group of skill players on offense, the key for the Aggies will be to play well up front. The Aggies’ offensive line’s sole returning starter will have to work well with new faces to open holes for Cartwright and opportunities available for Reynard and Bell against a Jacksonville State front seven that has been one of the best units in the country over the past few seasons.
The Aggies return most of their defensive unit which was ranked top five nationally in 2017 in scoring defense, total defense, and rushing defense. Headlined by junior defensive end Darryl Johnson and Redshirt sophomore defensive back Mac McCain the Aggies are an experienced group that is excellent at stopping the run and forcing turnovers.
#8 Jacksonville State Gamecocks
2017 Record: 10-2
Players to Watch:
Marlon Bridges, JR. FS
Randy Robinson, SR. NT
Whoever Starts at QB
For the past several years Jax State has been on the short list of national contenders. Now after going losing in the second round of the FCS playoffs three of the past four years, JSU must prove that they still have a place in the national arena of FCS football. After losing to Sam Houston State in 2014 (National Semifinalist) and Youngstown State in 2016 (National Runner up) JSU was given the benefit of the doubt due to their 2015 campaign which saw them end the season in Frisco, but the prestige of making the National Championship game officially lost its meaning for JSU after a 7-17 loss to Kennesaw State in another second-round mishap last season.
The main story for the Gamecocks this season has been the battle between Redshirt-Freshman Zion Webb and 4-Star Clemson transfer Zerrick Cooper for the role of starting QB. Head Coach John Grass has stated that the starting quarterback will be revealed as the offense gets onto the field in Montgomery. Whoever the Gamecock’s play at QB will have plenty off assets to help them as the Gamecocks offense features veteran offensive line, talented group of receivers and tight ends, and a deep stable of running backs. Much like the Aggies, offensive line play for the Gamecocks will set the tone for the offense and the Aggie front seven will provide a worthy test.
Defensively the Gamecock’s motto seems to be “Reload.” After losing 5 starters, 4 of which were given NFL opportunities, including 2017 Buchannan Award winner Darius Jackson, the Gamecocks have brought in 4-star SEC transfers Tre Threat and Denzil Ware to supplement the Gamecocks Defensive front. The Gamecocks will also return junior safety and Buchannan candidate, Marlon Bridges, who lead a young group of defensive backs. The defensive backs will be the question mark for JSU’s defense and they will be thrown straight into the fire against Reynard and the Aggie’s strong passing attack.
Both teams are entering 2018 on a mission to legitimize themselves a staple in the ranks of the FCS elite. This game may not provide the winner the recognition they deserve but a loss for either team could be a very big setback as far as reputation is concerned. Call me a homer, but I’m banking on the Gamecock’s 41-game regular season winning streak against non-FBS competition to extend.