First things first, Jacksonville State University is NOT in Florida.
The University of Maine’s opponent in the second round of the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs is based in Jacksonville, Alabama, which is 63 miles from Birmingham and 79 miles from Atlanta.
The 9-3 Gamecocks, who invade Alfond Stadium in Orono for a noon game Saturday against the Black Bears (8-3), are an FCS powerhouse.
Fifth-year head coach John Grass’s team is among only three FCS programs making a sixth consecutive playoff appearance, joining North Dakota State and South Dakota State.
The Gamecocks played North Dakota State in the 2016 national championship game during which current Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz and his team beat the Gamecocks 37-10 for their fifth straight title.
The Black Bears’ stout defense, which ranks fourth among 124 FCS school in total defense (278.8 yards per game), will face its toughest challenge of the year against the nation’s sixth-best offense.
The Gamecocks, led by quarterback Zerrick Cooper, a Clemson University transfer, and wide receiver Josh Pearson, are averaging 499 yards and 41.1 points per game which rank sixth and eighth, respectively, in the country.
They have been a big-play offense that has scored 20 touchdowns of at least 29 yards, including 10 that covered 40 yards or more.
Cooper has thrown 30 touchdown passes, fourth most in the FCS, and Pearson’s 17 TD receptions lead the nation.
The 6-foot-4, 225-pound Cooper, who was the backup QB at Football Bowl Subdivision Clemson last season, has completed 62.2 percent of his passes (232-for-373) for 3,051 yards (8th in FCS). He has also run the ball 95 times for 335 yards and five touchdowns.
Jacksonville State’s 289.5 passing yards per game is 11th best. The line has protected him well, allowing only 1.58 sacks per game.
The Gamecocks’ 302 first downs are second most in FCS, and its 47.1 percent success rate on third down ranks 10th.
The 6-4, 205-pound Pearson (63 receptions, 1,061 yards) is one of 25 finalists for the Walter Payton Award given to the Offensive Player of the Year in FCS.
The Gamecocks placed 14 players on the All-Ohio Valley Conference team including eight first-teamers. Their offensive first-team picks were Cooper, Pearson, tight end Trae Barry (26 catches, 401 yds.), and linemen B.J. Autry, Tyler Scozzaro and Darius Anderson. Lineman Hunter Sosebee was a second-team selection.
The other leading receivers are 6-7 Jamari Hester (55 rec., 739 yds., 9 TDs) and Daniel Byrd (34-365-2). The top rusher is 5-9, 202-pound sophomore Jaelen Greene (124-707-4).
JSU’s defense has allowed 22.3 points and 301.7 yards per game, and has given up only 117.4 ypg against the rush. It boasts the nation’s best third-down defense (24.7 percent) and has returned four interceptions for touchdowns.
The defense is led by OVC first-team picks Randy Robinson, a lineman, and safety Marlon Bridges along with lineman Connor Christian, linebacker Jalen Choice and safety Traco Williams, all of whom were second-teamers.
Choice is the leading tackler (81 total, 10.5 for loss) followed by Bridges (61) and Williams (58), who has four interceptions.
Cooper and safety Yul Gowdy were picked to the OVC All-Newcomer team.